The appearance within our ranks of the 21st Century Socialism Tendency confronts the Socialist Alliance with a significant political challenge, of a type that has always been implicit in the project we have undertaken. In our quest to build a non-sectarian party of militant anti-capitalist resistance, we accept a certain ideological heterogeneity. You don’t have to be a revolutionary Marxist to belong to the Socialist Alliance, though most of us certainly are. You can be a Christian socialist, or a revolutionary anarchist. Or, as people joining our party often are, you can be radical-minded but untutored and in terms of ideas, rather unformed.
No matter. We recruit to a concrete action program of anti-capitalist struggle, aimed at throwing the rotten bourgeois system onto the trash-heap of history. Beyond this, we don’t demand conformity.
That is not to say that ideas are unimportant to us; quite the reverse. But we are not afraid of dissidence or debate. Our ideas and basic methods have been tested in class combat by many generations of left activists, and we have great confidence in them. This faith in the power and attractiveness of our ideas means we are prepared to make the Socialist Alliance easy to join. It also allows us to seek dialogue with a wide range of other progressive parties and currents, including non-Marxist ones, and to work closely with their members in numerous campaigns.
Implicit in our openness and non-dogmatism, however, are certain risks. From time to time people enter our ranks who have not grasped what we are really about. More rarely, hard times for the Australian left and the ideas of other currents with which we interact can lead even relatively experienced members of our party to embrace positions that strike most of us as badly mistaken. It would be wrong to say that we welcome such developments, but we are not going to panic. Provided the people involved remain loyal to the party, their views will be debated without rancor.
These are the terms in which I regard the 21st Century Socialism Tendency and its latest “10 Alternatives” document. In this contribution I will not address the document’s points individually or in order. Instead, I will respond to them on the basis of three broad themes that I see as encompassing the major differences.
“The old Leninist idea that the party is the memory of the class,” the tendency’s document argues at one point, “is insufficient. The class must have other organs of memory of struggle, other ongoing resources, and more organic ongoing culture.”
If this were simply a plea for the working class to enrich its traditions of resistance, and to create a broad range of organs devoted to struggle, none of us could possibly object. Unfortunately, the passage has to be read in light of the tendency’s call, set out in its earlier document, for the Socialist Alliance to be radically decentralised – turned, in fact, into a loose alliance of semi-autonomous branches.
The fact that these largely uncoordinated branches would be much less effective in supporting and helping to lend direction to popular struggles is not seen by the tendency as crucial. The party’s role as the most conscious, active and determined element of the proletariat would instead be taken on by a revived and strengthened anti-establishment culture.
As claimed by the tendency’s document, “The basis of a movement which can resist the rule of capital is a culture of resistance.” Others might contend: the only adequate basis for such a movement is a combining of militant class consciousness with organisation. But let us explore the tendency’s concept of culture-led resistance in more detail.
To comprise the key ingredient of successful anti-capitalist struggle, the tendency maintains, anti-establishment culture needs to be embodied in “self-sustaining and resilient centres of resistance…centres of community organisation built around an ethos of building communities that are movements in, of and for themselves and which can unite across geographical areas and around collective interests.”
These “centres of resistance”, as they developed, would mount “a protracted struggle to win the war of ideas and to establish working class and popular institutions, structures and methods of resistance.” This goal would be achieved via “the construction of a long term counter-culture that both allows for the expression of a culture of resistance and for an infrastructure of survival and struggle which can seek to create social relationships beyond those imposed by capital and the state.”
In the role assigned here to spontaneity and a sort of anonymous cultural ferment, there is a pronounced streak of romanticism. Also present is something of the nineteenth-century anarchist tradition that regarded political parties, and any organisation apart from the most elementary, as necessarily oppressive. The romanticising of popular and working-class culture, however, ignores the fact that culture is not something self-sufficient. As a totality of the ideas, prejudices and social interactions of a particular community, culture always has definite material roots.
In a capitalist society, the primary influence on culture is almost always capitalist social relations. Exceptions to this pattern are only partial, and historically have been rare and brief; if the dominant influence on culture is no longer the ruling class, then the ruling class itself is in near-terminal crisis. So long as capitalist relations prevail, the notion of a popular culture antagonistic to capitalism having an enduring existence, and providing the basis for concerted resistance to the system, is fanciful.
As an illustration, I might point to the best-known flowering of dissident culture in Australian history, the youth counter-culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The grip of this culture was never remotely complete. Australia’s dominant culture remained that of capitalist consumerism. Holding out the lure of big bucks, the television game-shows kept viewers riveted, and my contemporaries still largely aspired to Chrysler hemis.
It is also worth recalling the specific sources of the political dissidence of the time. As well as reflecting opposition to conscription and the Vietnam War, this climate of revolt grew out of a formidable level of industrial militancy, itself the product of decades of union organising and struggle.
The culture, in short, arose out of the class consciousness and organisation, not the reverse. Does this suggest anything to readers about where the struggle for a supportive radical culture should begin?
Nevertheless, the comrades of the tendency imply that the tasks of fostering class consciousness and organisation can be performed spontaneously by culture. What role then remains for the class-struggle party? We need not fear irrelevance, the tendency assures us. There will still be a vaporous geometry to keep us busy:
“We need to look at fighting a war of culture, of spaces, of relations and of the commons. We need to see our work as being based on expanding the spaces and relations within which new forms of social relationships and new forms of organisation can flourish – spaces which are held in common.”
This is much too post-modern for me, and I doubt very much that even those who drafted that passage can say what it means.
Still, not to fear: the document’s authors in their “concrete alternative” spell out the following proposals:
One response to these urgings might simply be: tell us about it! Here in Adelaide, our Activist Centre is the regular meeting place for progressive groups such as the Anti-Poverty Network. And throughout the country, Socialist Alliance members have always shown a keen interest in new areas of social struggle. Normally, our response to such initiatives is very sympathetic: we observe, encourage, analyse and report. Where individual members want to get involved, we place no obstacles in their way.
As a party, however, we set out to maximise our political impact, and this requires being selective in the causes to which we devote resources. As a rule, we avoid throwing our energies into self-help and mutual aid initiatives. We are not social workers, and in the squats, communes and cooperatives, we could easily dissipate our strength without raising the political level of our class to any detectable degree.
No successful revolutionary struggle, we should remember, has ever been led by a culture, and no ruling class has ever succumbed to the blows of a social milieu. Those who try to bypass the building of a conscious, disciplined revolutionary organisation might recall the epitaph on the left counter-culture of the 1970s that was recorded later by the rock band Skyhooks:
“Whatever happened to the revolution?
We all got stoned and it drifted away.”
Lenin in his writings stressed the central importance to a revolutionary party of its newspaper, but we would now substitute the words “party media”. Technology has indeed moved on. Nevertheless, the key changes the tendency urges for our media work ‒ that is, withdrawing support for Green Left Weekly and Links ‒ could not possibly serve our purposes.
The resources we put into supporting the newspaper, the tendency argues, are not justified by the returns we get from it. To take the place of campaigning with GLW, the tendency recommends “party stalls, focussing on key upcoming party and movement events, selling pamphlets and merchandise…giving out free propaganda, and conducting surveys and petitions.” Also in the mix is to be a new journal-type publication of online analysis. These operations, however, could not remotely substitute for the range of functions which GLW currently performs that support our work.
Whether readers read Green Left for the first time in hard copy or open it on line, its content immediately establishes our seriousness as an organisation, with views that are informed and well argued.
Further, GLW is essential for encouraging those who read it regularly to forge a relationship of trust and identification with the Socialist Alliance. Pamphlets and leaflets cannot do this for us. Pamphlets address only specific topics, and in any rapidly-developing area of politics, soon become too dated to be of prime interest. Meanwhile the leaflets, though useful for putting the main points of specific arguments, are necessarily too brief to provide much information or perspective.
Establishing a relationship of trust requires news, which the tendency aims to get us out of. Among the tendency’s “concrete alternatives” for our media work, their document lists: “Discontinue news as the primary focus of our media strategy.”
Before people decide they have confidence in us and our politics, however, they want to compare our views with those of other currents on a range of developments over a more or less prolonged period. They want a depth of information and analysis that news articles can provide, but leaflets cannot.
For bourgeois media organisations, winning and maintaining the trust of their readers or viewers is a key preoccupation. Accordingly, this area has attracted a good deal of sociological research. A study conducted in the US last year for the American Press Institute identified the following factors as vital:
It is hard to imagine that if this study had been conducted in Australia, the findings would have been significantly different. And while the research relates to the bourgeois media, we would be foolish to think its lessons do not apply still more strongly to the publications we support. For people to decide they have confidence in a radical left newspaper is, after all, a much weightier choice than expressing trust in the Daily Telegraph.
What the sociological findings should suggest to us is that the approach to our media work set out in the tendency’s document is utterly wrong-headed. Unless we continue putting very substantial resources into this work, there is no way we can “get the facts right”. Our views on events will not have the authority needed if we are to draw people around us.
Meanwhile, people will only take their lead from us – as opposed to taking it from the capitalist media – if we supply a regular flow of fresh news, including on topics that the mainstream media refuse to cover. We have to remember that bourgeois journalism settled on the format of daily-to-weekly news for an excellent reason: humans are curious animals, and our minds seek constant novelty. Unless our party’s message is continually revalidated by new illustrations, it will be crowded out.
On these grounds, GLW is absolutely essential to our political project. Whether GLW continues with the print edition is arguably a lesser question. But as Jim McIlroy has shown, there is nothing unviable about the hard-copy GLW, and the advantages we derive from it are very substantial.
In the tendency’s document, the treatment of media topics begins by citing figures to show the advance of online publishing and in particular, of social media. Then the question is dropped almost entirely. That is a pity, since the shift to online publishing holds enormous opportunities for us.
Ironically, online publishing gives GLW an important advantage over the capitalist press. Key in the web address of your local Murdoch rag, and you slam into a paywall. But there is no paywall blocking people from GLW, and as Jim indicates, on present performance GLW should be able to keep supplying our news and ideas free of charge.
With the advent of social media in particular, the mainstream news oligopoly has lost a good deal of its hold. Social media users now seek information and opinion from an almost endless range of sources extending from major news firms to specialist blogs. Traditional word-of-mouth is multiplied by orders of magnitude, as people send one another tweets, comments, articles, photos and videos.
Young people, as the tendency’s document notes, are especially heavy users of social media. The earlier-cited research for the American Press Institute showed 88 per cent of under-35-year-old “millennials” in the US getting news regularly from Facebook. The US researchers found their younger respondents to be “anything but ‘newsless’, passive, or civically uninterested.”
Typically, these young people used social media to tap into a variety of contrasting opinions; their curiosity extended via news into the world of ideas. And their use of social media was very much a collective experience:
“Millennials…appear to be drawn into news that they might otherwise have ignored because peers are recommending and contextualizing it for them on social networks, as well as more private networks such as group texts and instant messaging.”
Millennials and their elders alike were found to be sceptical of the news they encountered on social media networks. Only 12 per cent of all respondents reported having a great deal or a lot of trust in what they encountered on Facebook. But confidence was much greater in news sites that the users knew well and viewed as reliable.
These findings should be exciting news for us. Social media can markedly expand our ability to put telling facts and radical ideas before masses of people, especially youth. But we have to “do news”, and we have to create trust through being reliably factual in our reporting and astute in our in-depth analysis. We will also benefit if we can furnish a regular stream of articles, with new items posted most days.
If we can achieve these goals, our readers will do a lot of proselytising for us, spreading our message through Facebook and other networks.
Again, the blindingly obvious message here is that in the era of social media, GLW is more central to our prospects than it has ever been. Quite simply, we cannot take advantage of the potential the new media offer unless we have a sophisticated news platform.
More than likely, the possibilities opened up by social media mean that GLW needs a certain revamping. I’m inclined to think GLW should be tilted more toward youth, in particular by expanding its “Cultural Dissent” coverage. But that is a topic for a separate discussion.
The tendency’s document does, of course, urge us to make use of online media. But its recommendations here are confused and inadequately researched, and curiously, the examples the document cites tend to vindicate our existing practice.
We are urged to “create a new online popular analytical media project using examples such as Jacobin and Novara Media as inspiration.” Jacobin, produced in the US, is a for-pay journal of progressive analysis and polemic that appears quarterly in print and online. Some articles are available online free of charge. Jacobin has affinities with Links, but is more scholarly in tone and less explicitly socialist, while operating on a much larger scale. As a publishing concept, its relevance to our needs and possibilities is limited. Links offers a much better model for our purposes.
Novara Media is a radical British e-initiative that began with radio and television journalism. Intriguingly (and as if to embarrass our comrades who would see GLW close), Novara Media recently set up a “Novara Wire” section that provides topical, relatively brief articles on important developments in Britain and internationally. In concept, Novara Media thus has much in common with GLW, or with GLW as the broad multi-media news complex to which we should aspire.
The tendency, it transpires, would see GLW shut down – and then try to replicate an initiative whose activists have decided that the general model GLW pursues is not bad at all.
It is when we move on to considering the tendency’s recommendations on electoral work, and propaganda in general, that we see most clearly the political course these comrades urge on us. Instead of raising transitional demands, we are told we need to make a shift to an “anti-establishment reformist propaganda project”.
According to the tendency, we should stop running in federal and state elections, at least for the present. Instead, we should confine our electoral activity to contesting local government polls. Hopefully gaining positions as local councillors, we should use this base to construct “red strongholds” through “winning cultural hegemony (prioritising music and arts events, sports events, potentially even more ‘aid’ work such as food banks, etc).”
The warm and fuzzy, culture-based left liberalism envisaged here is not really different from that of the Greens, though it has to be said that even the Greens are generally more political than this.
The resemblance to the Greens troubles the authors of the tendency’s document enough for them to attempt a certain demarcation. The Greens, the document complains, lack a “sufficiently anti-establishment approach”, and suffer from a “willingness to play ball”. From the point of view of working-class interests, however, the Greens are less benign than the tendency suggests.
The Greens are a party whose ultimate loyalty is to a class whose interests are fundamentally hostile to those of the worker masses who make up the majority in our society. In class terms, the Greens represent the furthest-left manifestation of capitalist politics on the Australian scene. The aim of the Greens is to soften the environmental, cultural and “lifestyle” barbarities of capitalism, and thus to save the system from itself. But while objecting to many of the things capitalists do, the Greens have no fundamental quarrel with capitalism as such.
Lacking a class analysis, the Greens have no conception that the savageries of capitalism are essential to maintaining the profits on which the system feeds. Successful popular struggles can mitigate the system’s oppressions, but the capitalists are always looking to roll back any reforms that are forced on them. The only way to end the cruelties definitively is to do away with capitalism itself.
To the Greens, that revolutionary perspective is anathema. As for the authors of the tendency’s document – such considerations seem to have completely slipped their minds.
How should we relate to the Greens? It is simply a fact that the Greens and the Socialist Alliance want many of the same things. For us to refuse to collaborate with the Greens in struggling for these goals would be unpardonable sectarianism. Equally, we are usually obliged in elections to make a choice between capitalist evils – and the least evil capitalist party on offer is generally the Greens.
But while we might urge a vote for the Greens in the absence of a working-class alternative, that is not the same thing as expressing political confidence in them. Here the tendency takes a perilous step when it argues:
“There are many good, left-wing activists and members of the Greens, and the more we bolster their side, the better off the entire left in Australia is.
“Where there is a strong, left-wing Greens candidate at any level…we support their campaign and help build their campaign with our activists.”
We should not be dogmatic in assessing such situations. If a Greens candidate were to revolt against the party machine and campaign on what was clearly a socialist program, a case might be made that the candidacy was socialist rather than Greens and deserved active support. But such rebellions have been rare, and the trend of Greens politics is toward incorporation of the party into the capitalist establishment.
Left-wing ructions within the Greens are certainly no bad thing. But helping workers draw a distinction between parties that will defend their interests all the way, and others whose final brief is to serve the ruling-class oppressors, is a much better one. And if we have the energies and resources to lend a hand in Greens election campaigns, we are in a position to pursue our own activism, around demands that genuinely correspond to the needs of workers and the oppressed.
Ultimately, we are opponents of the Greens, with different fundamental positions and class loyalties. The tendency’s perspectives, however, would transform our relation to the Greens into that of a limp appendage.
For the tendency, the existence of the Greens serves as an excuse for refusing to seize the opportunities that elections present to us. We read:
“It is clear that for the time being they [the Greens] will continue to soak up the vote of those moving to the left of Labor, which leaves little room for a left-of-greens platform at State or Federal level at the moment.”
That is an astounding assertion. It assumes wrongly that the key reason why we participate in elections at present is to get votes – of which more later. And if the assertion is true, then no anti-capitalist program can possibly be raised at present in an Australian federal or state election ‒ which is simply not correct.
It is very obvious that the authors of the tendency’s document do not understand our strategy in bourgeois elections. “With Australia’s undemocratic voting system,” they complain at one point, “our capacity to actually make a breakthrough on this terrain is very limited.” Indeed, we are unlikely prospects for winning state or federal seats. But that is not why we run.
Our goal in elections is to counterpose fighting left demands to those of the pro-capitalist parties, in a setting where working people are paying more-than-usual attention to politics. Through this tactic, we seek to raise workers’ understanding and class combativity.
To the tendency, this approach is simply “raising the flag of socialism” or “revealing the limitations of bourgeois politics.” But that does the approach scant justice. Our demands in elections are chosen carefully so as to mesh with key existing concerns of workers and of the marginalised and dispossessed. These demands do not simply reproduce existing mass consciousness, or adapt to it; their dynamic is to move it forward.
Our demands propose measures that would solve the dilemmas of workers, and that workers can readily see are within the productive powers of our society. But at the same time, it is obvious to everyone that the employer class would resist these demands furiously.
Through engaging with these demands, workers come to grasp that the source of their problems is not a supposed inferiority of working people as human beings, or any necessary limitations of the productive economy, but conscious decisions that the capitalist elite makes in its own interests.
To use a term employed for many decades on the left, our demands are thus “transitional”, in that they aim to set working people on a path of transition from their existing modes of thought to a revolutionary anti-capitalist consciousness.
The authors of the tendency’s document have heard of transitional demands. According to their text, our electoral platforms present “a dogmatic and ossified version of transitional politics”. Specifically, the document states, our demands
“…neither speak directly to people where they are at, nor are in any position to ‘outstrip themselves’, since none of them are winnable without a very massive change in the balance of forces in Australia.”
Solving the fundamental problems of working people will indeed require a “very massive change” in the relationship of social forces in our country. No-one said that consistent working-class politics was easy, and we are not going to lie to the people we aim to draw into struggle. But workers either need solutions to their problems, or they don’t.
Our demands are also said to be “abstract”. Here, the comrades of the tendency might look to the demands the Socialist Alliance is raising in the present federal election campaign.
“Create jobs by introducing a 30 hour week, with no loss of wages.”
“Cap rents and mortgage repayments at 20% of income.”
“Make public transport frequent and free.”
We could hardly be less abstract than that. And if anyone asks where the money for such changes would come from, our platform has equally specific answers:
“Cut military spending.”
“Introduce a wealth tax for the super-rich.”
“An immediate rise in company tax to 49%.”
“Nationalise the mines, banks and energy companies, under community and workers’ control.”
Calls such as the last of these, the tendency complains, “come across as purely idealistic.” Perhaps the authors of the tendency’s document should talk to the people in my blue-collar workplace. There, the level of affection for Gina Rinehart is matched only by enthusiasm for gold-plated energy bills, and for mortgage-rate hikes by banks that pay less-than-inflation interest while charging fees for everyday transactions.
Demands that workers can agree are sensible and in their interests, but that employers will fight ruthlessly to block, are “idealistic” only if we accept that capitalism and its structures represent the outer limit of the conceivable political universe. That is how the Greens view things. But we on the left do not.
In place of our party’s method of approaching workers with concrete transitional demands, the authors of the tendency’s document urge that we “foment an anti-establishment identity and spirit among the Australian people,” through “creating greater unity between social agents, and forging durable common spaces where these links can be organically forged.”
Reading statements like these, we’re entitled to conclude that behind the seven veils of their faux-sociological jargon, the comrades of the tendency haven’t a clue how to proceed. Their proposed “concrete alternatives” would swiftly bring the Socialist Alliance to collapse and dissolution.
Finally, we should remember that yearnings for an amorphous, class-ambivalent “anti-establishment identity and spirit” embracing “the Australian people” have led in the past to some very ugly places.
Suggesting new names for a transformed party, the tendency’s writers propose “Australia in Common”, and “Australia Together”. It is mystifying how the authors of the tendency’s document could be so tin-eared as not to detect in these names the classic dog-whistle of the populist ultra-right (“One Nation”).
This lack of elementary political insight and skills, if nothing else, should be enough to disqualify the tendency from having any pretensions to lead the Socialist Alliance, or to have its policy recommendations accepted.