Taking stock, moving forward

Taking stock, moving forward

A split is never fun and the loss of a group of mainly young comrades that has significantly weakened a branch is not to be welcomed. It has been oddly jarring however, coming almost straight after a successful public conference, forming closer links with campaigning leftwing Queensland MP Rob Pyne, an election campaign featuring a barnstorming effort by key First Nations movement leader Ken Canning, and some significant successes in mobilising people and alliance-building resulting from our local councillor positions. For the purposes of what most of us probably thought was going to be an extended discussion, I’d started preparing notes on some of the issues in contention. In light of the split I thought it useful to edit these into some reflections on where we are at and where we need to go — taking stock of our project of building a non-sectarian revolutionary organisation and considering how we can best move it forward — that can hopefully aid our discussion in the lead up to our next national conference in January.

The organisation we need to be

The former tendency made the obvious point that Socialist Alliance has changed from an initial alliance of revolutionary socialist groups and a range of radical activists, to a party-type organisation, particularly from 2005 when those groups unwilling to move on from the limited and inevitably transitory alliance form began to leave. In considering our history we should take a step back and consider that Socialist Alliance has always been an attempt to transcend the flawed model emerging from the 1960-70s left of competing, bickering socialist groups organised on a narrow programmatic basis, and that this effort, for which there was no blueprint, was always going to fraught and complex. We could even take a further step back and consider that small socialist groups with limited connection to workers and the oppressed inherently have a difficult time in working out what to and to really “test the line in practice”, and that should offer some perspective particularly when discussion gets heated.  

In any case I agree with the former tendency comrades that there has been some confusion in this transition of Socialist Alliance to a more coherent organisation, and that this confusion had some broader roots in problems for the left in the decline of early 2000s anti-corporate and anti-war campaigns and of mid-2000s defeats of the militant left current in the unions. However they were wrong in some significant details, such as in a claim that Socialist Alliance was exclusively focused for its early years on the union left and an amorphous broad left: There were in fact from 2001 arguments  to orientate to young people such as those radicalising around anti-corporate campaigns (for example see here).

It seems to me there was, particularly around 2005-2012, confusion about Socialist Alliance being a “broad” organisation and in promoting ourselves as such, and that this led to some unhelpful practices. For example, at least until several years ago in Melbourne we had a tendency of trying to attend every single progressive event, organising too many hurriedly organised public events, and calling ourselves a “district” long after we were in reality a single branch. Nationally there was hesitancy to develop a program and to call ourselves revolutionary, hesitations which served to dilute our purpose and identity rather than broaden our appeal (in late 2012 I argued for calling ourselves what we are, revolutionary, here and the argumentation for a programmatic document from last year is here).

Fortunately, we’ve been discussing and addressing these issue if a little belatedly and slowly from the lead up to our 2013 conference. A frustration with the recent truncated debate has been that some members of the tendency had recently been forceful advocates of moving towards what we needed — a more coherent and united party, focused on key tasks and with major priorities of recruiting young people and training activists — but more recently have done an unexplained about-face. For examples of the former focus on “cadre development” see an article by a range of former tendency members in 2014 here and by Liam Flenady in 2013 here. Further, I largely agreed with the what Ewan Sanders wrote just last year about the priorities we needed, not least in his point that a stronger “cadre” organisation is the best thing to build now to prepare for a broader left formation — although Ewan perhaps tellingly was quite negative about the discussion and changes on these issues happening elsewhere from Brisbane, and ignored programmatic questions.  But this year the tendency put forward solutions that as far as I can see could only loosen and dissipate us: calling for a return to an alliance-like and “multi-tendency” organisation; adapting to if not adopting anarchism and autonomism; closing down our publications in favour of a broader discussion website; turning to some kind of left welfare-ism; promoting illusions in immediate gains to be had across the board in local government. While anyone can change their minds, there’s been no explanation, and this seems to be to indicate the tendency was about frustration and lining people up around secondary organisational questions and alleged personal grievances (which can only be addressed in a properly constituted and confidential grievance procedure and not at all in a public national discussion), rather than any coherent platform that could take us forward.

We’ve made the assessment some time ago that a “broad left party” that revolutionaries could be a current within wasn’t on the cards in the near future, and what we should do was build a “non-sectarian revolutionary party” while advocating a broad left party. We need a frank assessment of our progress in this transition and what we might need to adapt or change. One thing I think is needed is to make sure members and supporters are clear what our current political basis is: I’d think to see the third, “programmatic” edition of Towards a Socialist Australia printed soon and given to all new members, and I’d like to see the main points of it incorporated into an introductory education (discussed more below).  

Green Left Media

One of the issues in recent contention was how to make better use of communications media, specifically arguments to replace all our existing media with a new website.

The “online versus print” aspect of this debate has been somewhat misleading, as I don’t think any advocates of continuing with print would disagree that it’s our media as a whole rather than just the printed newspaper as such that should be our “organisational scaffolding”. There are however some issues to clarify and perhaps changes to be made. I agree with the general thrust of Jim McIlroy’s defense of the paper but he tends to imply the website is an add-on and that our current set-up is a static one. For a long time it’s not been the “Green Left Weekly website”, a weekly upload of the same text and pics as in the paper version, but “Green Left Online”, which is updated through the week with varied content, and we should be looking to make it more frequent and more multi-media. Renfrey Clark is more clear on seeing all communications efforts as an integrated party-building project, and that their forms and frequencies as secondary. That the party-building aspect of our media was what was really in dispute is suggested by the fact the tendency wanted to close down Green Left and Links in toto in favour of a new, broad left discussion site, a ridiculous idea when these names are widely recognised, unless the intention is to move towards a different political project, rather than just be opposed to print.

More generally, for some decades there hasn’t been a much more banal and clichéd thing to say that online forms of communication are taking over from the printed. Some of us were thinking that as teenagers in the early 1980s when we were reading William Gibson’s Neuromancer or watching the movie Wargames.  At a 1990 Sydney meeting discussing the new left paper proposal that became Green Left Weekly, someone dismissed the idea as useless because online forms would take over. Well they are undoubtedly have done so to a considerable extent but their total domination seems to be taking a bloody long time: it may need some further technical development such as truly paper-like displays. But the thing in politics is not what to do in the indeterminate future but what to do now.

There’s real material reasons why the printed form — in books, magazines and newspapers — is not yet dead. Many find there’s still advantages, in pleasure and comprehension, in paper’s high resolution displays and user friendly interface, and in an alienating capitalist world, many like like the social contact of acquiring and discussing then in person.

There’s also specific political reasons why socialists should persist with print. It's when people are roused by vital political questions that the continuing advantages of the direct approach and physicality of a printed socialist publication, highly visible on the streets and at events and actions, become obvious, in being able to immediately talk to people, point out articles of interest, encourage them directly to come to events, donate to a political project and sign up. Not of least importance is the role of printed media encountered on the streets and at events in promoting the much more extensive content online to people seeking new political ideas which aren’t always obvious to find in the often bewildering complexity of cyberspace.

We have to think more of the integration of our communications efforts if we’re to most efficiently intervene in a complex and changing mediascape. As well as Green Left Online we have Green Left TV as a Youtube channel and Green Left Radio. The latter is produced and broadcast in Melbourne but content can be sent from anywhere and it can be streamed at broadcast time and later downloaded from anywhere. It should be straightforward to record decent audio from any indoor interview or forum talk with a smart phone, and there you have some radio content as well as with transcription some print and online text. Outdoor audio, video generally and editing is a bit trickier but training more comrades in all of the necessary skills (including writing and text editing) should be a high priority.

The changing media landscape is difficult to keep on top of when every website update or redesign of the paper requires investment that we want to get the most value out of. I understand the recent NC agreed to look at outsourcing completion and maintenance of the new GL site which seems an efficient way to do things currently.

I also understand the NC decided that social media engagement will be more systematically monitored and encouraged. With regard to the most important of these media, Facebook, comrades need to be aware that best use of this means more that whacking things up there and hoping for the best: Facebook rewards engagement — likes, shares and comments — with a post by making that post more visible, for example to the those who’ve liked one of our pages, amongst the massive plethora of content that users don’t necessarily see all of. This is an area where despite some efforts to more systematically encourage sharing and to produce ads/memes, we do seem to fall down. I had a look at the SimilarWeb website traffic monitor to compare Green Left and Red Flag.  This showed that GL Online has around 80-130,000 visits per month, 9% of which come from social media; while Red Flag has about 40-65,000 visits per month, nearly 60% of which come from social media (full results here)

We’re looking at monitoring and encouraging  Facebook engagement better in Melbourne for our pages Socialist Alliance Melbourne, Sue Bolton — Socialist Alliance Councillor for Moreland and Green Left Radio.

One minor point is that although the Socialist Alliance website now looks great and is logically ordered Alliance Voices isn’t easy to find without a search and it’s not obvious when new items are uploaded: Perhaps there’s an email notification option or other means of letting comrades know.

Education

Education is a central priority and we need material fit for purpose. I’m willing to put my labour power where my mouth is and help such as with the overhaul of the Introduction to Marxism class series. I’ve found the Introduction to Socialism we’ve used in Melbourne too extensive for an initial introduction and sometimes a time barrier to getting new members to move on to our Introduction to Marxism. We’ve tended to leave specific questions like women’s oppression and liberation to additional classes and discussions which are hard to fit in though good when we can. I think we need a brief Introduction to Socialist Alliance outline suitable for campus lunchtimes or sessions with new members, plus a comprehensive though compact Introduction to Marxism that we encourage new members to undertake soon after joining. I think a good six-part series might be: inequality and class; the state; capitalism; specific oppressions; historical material; socialist strategy and tactics (condensing the current 5-part series into 4 and adding sessions on specific oppression and strategy and tactics). The latter should cover Towards a Socialist Australia. This would give new members a good grounding in our politics and their broad historical and theoretical bases although there also needs to be ongoing education and discussion. We’ve found topical/educational talks at most branch meeting very useful in Melbourne although it would be good to be better encourage pre-reading. 

A bit of routinism perhaps in a regular public conference

I think after the good experience of the Socialist for the 21st Century Conference we should think about a regular national public event. Socialist Alternative have shown the advantages of a formula and a recognised institution in the Marxism conference, and barring any forseeable unity with them we should think about an institution that serves our needs and that of the broader movement for serious ongoing education, discussion and debate.

I think something of an annual “Socialism for the 21st century” formula, without being too formulaic, could serve our needs perhaps better than the “big bang” conferences every several years, which perhaps fail to maintain momentum after a big effort and perhaps involve some wheel-reinvention each time. An annual conference should I think aim to have a few “big names” and international guests and a good range of speakers from among ourselves and others from across the left, without needed to cover all bases as some things could wait until the following year.

One of the barriers in getting people from Melbourne to the conference was getting to Sydney and back in a regular weekend for those who couldn’t get there for the Friday. I think we should seize the June long weekend which at least covers everyone except WA and Queensland, and aim to have initial material by early in the new year. Perhaps as a long weekend for most it could also include incorporate some of our national decisions-making or training needs.

Elections

The former tendency argued that we should de-prioritise state and federal elections and make a big turn to local elections. I don’t agree and the turn by most Greens to moderation and parliamentary cretinism reinforces the usefulness of putting a class struggle alternative wherever we usefully can in the electoral arena. It’s true though that in the necessary framework of prioritising our work we need to carefully assess the most useful campaigns and carefully appraise the results. We also need to be clear that in this arena as in all others we don’t roll like mainstream political organisations. Elections, including the winning of positions, are part of the main game, promoting mas struggle and the self-organisation of working people, which includes building a socialist organisation. We should consider what campaigns we might be able to promote and what actions we might be able to initiate. We should aim to have more stalls and when canvassing at polling stations we should have at least a couple of people and a small stall to best promote campaigns and ourselves.

We’ve shown the usefulness of local councilor positions in promoting struggles in Fremantle and Moreland but local elections, successful or not, are no panacea. Even with a load of hard work and the experienced activist candidates with local runs on the board which seem to be necessary there’s no guarantee of success. And if a position is won there’s a huge workload to undertake the position with any usefulness, work which often doesn’t directly help our urgent needs for recruitment, activist training fundraising and outreach.

Conclusion

Socialist Alliance has been going through an extended transition that has entailed many risks and challenges. The former tendency raised some important issues and some ideas worth discussing but a fixation on organisational questions and alleged grievances and an incoherent mashup of a platform never boded well for a productive discussion. We need to move on and build on recent successes. We have great politics and a clear project to focus on. With free and frank discussion about the challenges ahead in a framework of comradely collaboration and united activism we can make a real contribution to the construction of the mass force for socialism so desperately needed.