Science and the broad party

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There are a number of mantras we live by now as Socialist Alliance (SA) members. One of them is “We are not a Marxist Party”. Another is “practise is everything, theory is nothing”. Another is “We avoid ideology because we are non-dogmatic”. Another is “programs are what sectarians always refer to — they are of no use to us anymore”. All of these have their own intrinsic shortcomings with regard to the building of a socialist party. But perhaps the most prominent is the “We don't have all the answers” mantra. This is repeated so often, it is almost as if through constant repetition SA members will come to believe in its alleged truthfulness.

The “we don't have all the answers” mantra has only really come into play in the Socialist Alliance in the last 18 months or so. At first it seemed harmless enough, after all, everyone can agree on the surface that no party has all the answers to all of the questions in the known universe. No one is expecting a party to have all of the answers to all questions. In relation to political questions though, the working class is entitled to expect answers from a political party in relation to political matters. The working class wants to know what we propose to do about the political problems it faces. And in the current era of the twin crises of global warming and capitalist financial collapse, the problems are approaching intractable levels. And yet, the “we don't have all the answers” mantra has now gathered so much pace within SA, it would not surprise if we adopted it as a slogan, or painted it on our banners. In fact, “we don't have all the answers” could be adopted as SA's universal policy.

While an agnostic approach to politics may satisfy the petty-bourgeois intellectual, who is disillusioned with the approach of both labour and capital, agnosticism will in no way satisfy the needs of the working class. The working class expects that those who put themselves forwards as knowing a thing or two about politics will have suggestions about what to do and what path to take. The working class will show contempt for a political agnostic, who says, we don't know what to do, and no one can say that they know what to do either. Such a response deserves little but contempt. Yet this seems to be what SA is trying to put forward to the working class in Australia. “We don't have all the answers” it declares in advance. Why should anyone listen to such an organisation that prefaces everything they say with this self-defeating caveat? Why is such an organisation involved in politics at all, if this is its attitude?

The reasons behind the agnosticism, however, become clear once we examine exactly what type of political formation SA is trying to build. SA is currently attempting to build a broad, loose, all-in, gather-all, broad left coalition. In order to keep together such a formation, an enormous amount of redefinition has to occur. SA has to redefine socialism, Marxism, Leninism, the vanguard party, class struggle, cadre and many other basic concepts of the struggle of the working class. The redefinition must then suit the current party building model SA employs. Needless to say, it should be the other way around. Those who claim to be socialist should attempt to build the type of party that accords with the only theoretical body which emanates from socialism, which is Marxism. SA's attempts to redefine Marxism, however, make its Marxism virtually unrecognisable. Socialism too, becomes something which we have previously never known. Unfortunately, SA's redefinition of these two concepts could be seen as promoting a socialism and Marxism which is at odds with previous historical understanding.

The “we don't have all the answers” mantra is a mini — summation of SA's current approach. Firstly, it signals above all that SA no longer regards Marxism as its primary theoretical basis. Secondly, it justifies the current party building approach, which demands uniting with non-socialists to build a broad formation. Non-socialist ideologies such as liberalism, anarchism, libertarianism, autonomism and anarcho-syndicalism are now welcome, and encouraged, in SA. More specifically, the “we don't have all the answers” approach even justifies coalition building with non-socialist and even anti-socialist political forces — especially the Australian Greens. If we don't have all the answers, perhaps the Greens have all the answers?

When Lenin taught that we have to “learn communism”, I am sure he did not intend that we were to learn it from anti-communist forces. What Lenin meant by learning communism is to listen intently to the vital needs of the working class, to appreciate their boundless skills and abilities, to remain humbled by their immense physical and mental strength, and ability to endure unimaginable hardships which capitalism rains down upon them. Yet, a socialist and Marxist consciousness must still be brought to the working class from without, from the socialists/Marxists. We can learn an endless amount about many things from the working class, but we cannot expect them to teach us what socialism is.

We can indeed learn from other political forces involved in the social movements. But what is it that we can learn? The Greens have more parliamentary experience than we do, and no doubt are now very shrewd operators in bourgeois parliaments. We probably can learn a thing or two from them about this aspect of politics, should circumstances somehow place us in parliament with a seat or two. But we are not going to learn about socialism, much less about Marxism, from the Greens. I find that on a regular basis, I can learn from our trade union bureaucracy about many things — how to run a workplace campaign, the best approach to take when dealing with employers, when to take things further, the finer details of collective agreements, and so on. But the politics of the trade union bureaucracy remains either pro-ALP, pro-capitalist, or both. The politics of the trade union leaders in general are usually reactionary, and on many occasions unapologetically so. We can't learn about socialism from these types, even though we must work with them in our day to day Union obligations.

The “public consultations” that SA will be embarking on to formulate its “Towards a Socialist Australia” document, is an extension of the “we don't have all the answers” axiom to an extreme form. This is effectively saying, you tell us what we should be doing. In fact, it seems to be saying, we don't have any idea of what socialism is, so you tell us, and we will go and do it. This is exactly the reverse of arguably Lenin's most famous piece of advice for socialists — that left to its own devices, the working class can only attain trade union consciousness. Socialist or Marxist ideas must be brought to the working class from the outside — largely from Marxist cadre trained by a vanguard party. SA's “public consultations” turns 100 years of Leninism on its head. If we can learn what socialism is from members of the working class who have never been involved in politics, why waste time building a socialist party?

In the detail of the proposal, though, the “public consultation” is extended much further than the working class. SA proposes to “extend this dialogue beyond the organised left, to trade unions, unions, faith based communities, the First Nations, local governments and community based activist organisations”. (1) One can certainly accept that we need to work with all of these groups under certain circumstances while building social movements. Even in this case, we would still need to be wary of the motivations behind some of these elements. But to consult these elements on what socialism is and how we should campaign for it is diluting socialism into something which effectively becomes meaningless. Moreover, some of these elements are openly conservative and anti-socialist. There are exceptions, but almost all trade union leaders in Australia are very mindful that real socialism will mean they will lose their privileged position as an official, and hence are vigilantly anti-socialist. Again, there are exceptions, but most church ministers, bishops and priests are very aware that socialism is a threat to their position and warn their congregations away from it. There may be some local government officials who are sympathetic to socialism, but again, almost all of these are aware that workers administering state power will eliminate the few crumbs they are able to secure as administrators of a capitalist state.

Granted, SA will not seek out George Pell, the ultra-conservative Catholic Arch-Diocese, or Paul Howes, the right wing ALP leader of the Australian Workers Union, for their views on what socialism is and how to campaign for it. I'm sure only left leaning church ministers and trade union officials will be interested in chipping in their ideas on socialism. Still, the whole process is very concerning. It is a different scenario to say Cuba, where the Communist Party of Cuba extensively consults with its people, the trade unions, women's organisations and so on, about the direction of socialism in Cuba. In that situation, a revolution has occurred, capitalism has been abolished and the workers hold state power. In this scenario, it is quite understandable that the Communist Party of Cuba would consult its people on the specifics of how to continue to forge a path towards socialism. And of course this is what the Cuban government has done over many years.

It is a different kettle of fish, however, for SA to embark on public consultations in Australia in 2012. SA is a part of the socialist left which is trying to prepare the working class for the immense task of revolution and the building of socialism, under conditions of a relatively wealthy First World country. Initially small scale preparations for the construction of a mass revolutionary Marxist vanguard party are what is in order for SA and the socialist left in the here and now. The struggle is to win as many people as possible to the principles of Marxism, and most especially the principle of the necessity of a Marxist vanguard party. This is not a self-declaration, it is simply one which has been handed to us by the history of class struggle to this point.

SA, on the other hand, now appears in denial of the historically determined need to construct Marxist vanguard parties. According to current SA praxis, all that is required is to build a loose coalition of any groups or individuals who consider themselves to be in some agreement with some of the postulates of socialism. As a consequence, SA is not able to insist on agreement or acceptance of very much at all to do with socialism. Revolution, Marxism, Leninism, dialectics — all these are negotiable, to be taken up or rejected just as anyone so pleases. Even politics itself is open to interpretation. Winning people to a certain kind of politics, well, that is seen as just being old hat.

Socialists are not Marxists just because we want to be radicals. Socialists are Marxists because we accept that Marxism corresponds to the needs of the vast majority of humankind, and, in the era of potentially fatal global warming, the needs of the planet itself. Socialists use Marxism as it holds the key to the emancipation of humanity, as well as making sense of the historical process itself. Paraphrasing Marx, socialism is the riddle of history solved. If we claim to be socialists, we cannot afford to put Marxism to one side in order to reach out to more people. Yes, we need to make use of any measure which will attract the masses to the side of socialism. But once we have their attention, we must insist that nothing less than the full program of Marxism is what is required to end both the misery of the global working class, and the cataclysmic potentialities of a climate and economy in free fall. Marxism is scientifically based, and a rejection of it ultimately means a rejection of science.

It is in this sense that Marxism states that the world is knowable. The world and all of its innumerable phenomena can be discovered through the rational application of science. Of course, the development of natural and social phenomena proceeds at such a pace, and is so vast, that aspects of it will not be known, but not because they cannot be known. Whether a certain topic receives scientific investigation is attributed to the priorities society chooses. Needless to say, under capitalism, science is largely permitted only so long as it contributes to the amassing of private profits for an insignificant minority. Science under socialism has immensely more potential, once it is freed from the dictates of capitalist destruction. We may not have all the answers, but, freed from capitalist rule, science can determine quite a large proportion of them.

The concept of a Marxist vanguard party is no less a scientifically and history determined necessity than that of the cultivation of crops to satisfy nutritional requirements. The Marxist vanguard party is an integral part of the entire theory of Marxism. It is impossible to claim that we agree with Marxism on many things, but we disagree with Marxism when it comes to constructing parties. History and science requires us to employ Marxism as a whole. Picking and choosing scraps of Marxism to follow as we so fancy is not Marxism at all.

With the promotion of its “We don't have all the answers” approach, SA comes dangerously close to a complete rejection of Marxism as a scientifically based body of theory. Marxism is hanging on inside SA, but it has to wage a day to day struggle to survive. It is buffeted from pillar to post by the imperatives dictated by the broad party tactic. “We don't have all the answers” — “practice is everything” — “we are non-dogmatic” — all of these mantras are designed to build, and justify building, a very specific type of party. This is a party which is a loose coalition, where theory is not prioritised, where ideology does not matter, and where politics is not important. Science, via Marxism, however, has determined that theory, ideology and politics are crucially important for any party which aspires to lead the working class towards socialism.

The RET holds that the “we don't have all the answers” mantra is a marked hindrance to our attempts to build the party which science has determined the working class needs for its struggle against capitalism. The working class is not aided by agnosticism in relation to class struggle, politics, and certainly not in relation to science. No one is expecting the revolutionary party to have all the answers to every known problem, but the working class certainly does expect the revolutionary party to have some answers for its political problems. If we are building an organisation which questions the validity of science or of Marxism, then our project has gone off the rails somewhere along the line. It is imperative that we re-establish our links with science and with Marxism by building and maintaining Marxist currents within SA. History demands nothing less.