The transitional method

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The richness of the discussion in Alliance Voices about our work over this last hectic year, and the many thoughtful contributions to the draft resolutions going to conference, should give members some confidence about the projected political perspectives for 2012.

We can be reasonably sure that the political upheaval throughout Middle East and Europe last year will continue to have an impact this year. In addition, the shock waves from the global recession are and will increasingly be felt in this country.

While we cannot predict exactly how the neo-liberal attacks overseas will impact on our class here in Australia, we have to be ready to engage with those who are coming to radical conclusions and are getting active in campaigns to defend and extend our rights.

It is definitely an exciting period to be a socialist today.

I think the conclusions being drawn by comrade Adam Baker are unduly pessimistic. Perhaps that explains why his contributions to this pre-conference discussion have been so persistently negative. Yet, he seems very conflicted: he acknowledges that some good work has been done, but then seems to also say that it's not good enough because it's being done in the framework of the “broad party” — to which he is opposed.

Adam has concluded that Socialist Alliance is not up to the challenge of involving people — in an ongoing way — in an explicitly socialist party: he's criticised SA for “atrophying” cadre; he doesn't believe that SA is introducing its members to, or educating them in, Marxism because SA is not an explicitly Marxist party. He's also criticised Green Left Weekly for its alleged liberalness.

The conclusions Adam has drawn are similar to those of some former members of the Democratic Socialist Perspective who, after three years of not being able to convince that organisation of their views, walked out and set up their own — the Revolutionary Socialist Party.

Adam hasn't provided a single proposal to strengthen the Socialist Alliance — beyond implying that the Democratic Socialist Perspective should withdraw from Socialist Alliance and go back to doing what it was doing before it merged into the Socialist Alliance.

Given Adam's references to Marxism, and his obvious concern for Socialist Alliance's direction, It is disconcerting to read his categorical dismissal of the transitional method — which we are seeking to apply.

Socialist Alliance today is not the same as a few years ago, or even when it was launched in 2001. It's developing its policies organically, involving members from a diverse set of political backgrounds and is taking a lead in some important social movements of the day. Sure, it has its problems — and delegates will discuss a set of proposals to help remedy some of these at the 8th national conference conference.

But the reality is that Socialist Alliance today involves many more socialist and Marxist activists than those who came in from the former DSP, and it's richer as a result.

SA includes leaders of social movements — including from the union movement — and some former members of the ALP and the Greens. Importantly too, a growing number of young people are joining SA — many after having first investigated the political differences among the gamut of far-left parties involved in the Occupy movement.

For left wingers and socialists who understand the need for an anti-capitalist organisation in Australia — not just a radical alternative to the Greens — the small steps Socialist Alliance has made in its 11 years is undeniably a good thing.

In membership terms, SA is the largest of the far-left organisations partly because it is easy to join. Members receive a weekly national newsletter outlining SA's activities, and about half of the membership have a subscription to Green Left Weekly. Members are encouraged to take part in regular branch meetings, work-related meetings, planning meetings, forums, Marxist schools and seminars, and international conferences (with keynote Marxist speakers and others).

Strangely, Adam implies that it's a bad thing for SA to influence social movements that are kicking a few goals today — the campaign to stop coal seam gas mining and for marriage equality. These two campaigns have made progress largely because so many of the activists are keen to deploy the mass action tactic and not rely on purely a lobbyist approach to achieve their aims.

Adam implies that those members who help lead these movements will as a matter of course sell out because they are immersed in campaign groups with non-socialist activists. Of course that could happen, but it's much less likely to if members use the democratic structures the party has to discuss our work and orientation.

Adam comes to the Socialist Alliance from the DSP, as do I. In the struggle to build a broader socialist party with left-ward moving and socialist forces — an orientation the DSP began in the 1980s — we always emphasised content over form, flexibility over rigidity. That DSP tradition held that revolutionaries had a duty to relate to any, and every, working class struggle and to help develop it in a radical direction.

This meant going through the experiences and drawing the conclusions that come when workers realise that reforms alone will never be enough to guarantee real democratic rights and freedoms.

Adam's contributions seem to totally downplay the transitional method. Marx, Engels and Lenin took pains to emphasise that there can be no substitute for the working class going through its own experience of struggle, and in that process learning its own lessons. No amount of program substituted for this experience. The working class would only become a class for itself — i.e. understand and realise its revolutionary potential and then act in its own interests — if and when it had acquired a political consciousness that went beyond immediate struggles.

As an aside, I'm reading Peter Camejo's memoirs (North Star — A Memoir, Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2010) which covers the 60's radicalisation of an entire generation in the US around basic democratic ideas — including for same sex rights and against the Vietnam war. It's a reminder of just how important the transitional approach is. The US Socialist Workers Party at that time, applied this non-sectarian and non-dogmatic approach and, as result, recruited heaps of youth and workers. (Peter, who was a leader of the SWP, later broke with it when it sent 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.)

SA's policies — which Adam complains are not revolutionary — are transitional demands. They are aimed at engaging with radicalising, and radical, people around the issues that concern them. They are not the end of the conversation, however, because we don't see the struggle for immediate and democratic demands as ends in themselves. This doesn't mean that they are unimportant in their own right; they are.

Adam's latest contribution displays a slight cynicism that perhaps comes from a certain impatience. We should all be a bit impatient, of course, but to draw the conclusion that SA is not radical or revolutionary or, even, that Marxists within the Socialist Alliance will become reformists simply by virtue of the fact that they in a party with non-Marxists is unscientific, non-Marxist and simply wrong. I hope Adam will allow himself to be convinced that SA is an important part of the class struggle in Australia, and that party building problems can be solved.

Engagement in working class politics and an understanding of how fundamental social change comes about — historically and today — is the only thing that will convince members to stay in the struggle for the long haul. Disengagement is a recipe for demoralisation and cynicism.