The recent announcement of formation of the 21st Century Tendency is a bit of a shock to the system. That a number of comrades who have been central to areas of our work would feel the need to go beyond Alliance Voice contributions and resolutions to form a tendency has led to some alarm, and the tone of discussions through social media avenues has been anything but comradely. It is true that Alliance Voices exists in order to facilitate more substantial discussion that is accessible to all comrades than social media — but we should also remember that the Constitution and Code of Conduct both govern all our interactions with fellow comrades, even on Facebook.
I, for one, welcome the creation of the Tendency as a potential for hope in the Alliance, even if I don’t agree with all of their proposals. I won’t comment on allegations of uncomradely behaviour or passed resolutions at meetings that I have not attended. But the tendency’s historical analysis of how the Alliance reached the state it is currently in is essentially correct, and puts a finger on the organisational troubles which the Alliance has faced since the dissolution of the DSP that, in some cases, have started to undermine our work in serious ways.
The most threatening of these problems is the entrenchment of party organisers around a loose and often inactive membership, which I felt to be a key organisational difficulty in my time as an organiser in Sydney branch during 2012 and 2013. However, I don’t feel qualified to comment on the allegation of a developing “siege mentality” and “undeclared factional grouping” amongst the national leadership, not having participated in any leadership bodies of the Alliance since 2013.
I’d like to take the opportunity of this debate to examine the political basis for our organisation functioning in the way that it does, see whether any of our core documents can shed any light on these arguments, and formulate some potential changes to those documents that might help us to address some of the issues identified by the Tendency and others in recent years.
Based on a reading of the Constitution alone — the political basis for our organising in the way that we do is a little thin. Some fundamental questions — like why we run in elections and how we see electoral work relating to our aims — are not really answered in that document. In recent years we’ve taken steps towards clarifying and publishing this vision, through our Member’s Guide and Towards a Socialist Australia (TASA) for example, but as the basis for our organisation, the constitution should set the framework, in broad strokes, for how we organise and why. At present, it is insufficient.
According to paragraph 3.1, we aim “to replace the capitalist system with one in which the fundamental elements of the economy are socially owned and controlled and democratic systems of popular power established. Only these radical measures will enable us to deal with the economic, ecological and social crises of the 21st century.” — a simple and clear explanation of our idea of socialism. However, this paragraph alone doesn’t answer the significant question that a lot of socialists deciding which organisation they should join will ask — how do we envision this “replacement” happening? What is our revolutionary strategy?
Paragraph 3.2 gives some answers. “A sustained mass campaign of total opposition to capitalism should aim to create the conditions to bring about a transformation to a socialist society that is based on co-operation, democracy and ecological sustainability.”
This is a description of our vision revolution in clear and imaginable terms. However, the wording is quite weak. Why “should” this sustained mass campaign aim to bring about the transformation of society we are arguing for? Our language needs to be far more direct.
Earlier the same paragraph says that we will be part of bringing about this “fundamental… change by developing policies, campaigns, and protests in co-operation with all workers, environmental, anti-racist, and other social movements, and to propose an alternative to the corporate control of society.”
My proposed wording change here would run as either:
“We argue for/Only a sustained mass campaign of total opposition to capitalism, uniting these forces, (that) can bring about a transformation to a socialist society based on co-operation, democracy and ecological sustainability.”
One of the arguments that has come up from the Tendency’s 10 proposals is our strategic and tactical approach to elections. Looking to the Constitution, paragraphs 3.4 and 3.5 state, “The Socialist Alliance stands candidates to give a voice to working-class struggle, and meet the need for working-class political representation. In parliament, Socialist Alliance representatives use their positions to support workers' struggles and social movements, fight reactionary policies and promote the mass campaigns that can defeat the attacks on jobs and living standards.”
In other words, attacks on the working class can only be defeated, and the struggles of social movements can only be won, through mass campaigns. Our electoral work is situated in a strategy of mass action. This suggests (but does not say explicitly) that we only envision the revolutionary change that we seek occurring through social struggle, not the parliament; however, there is a need for working-class representation in parliament in the here and now, to champion and strengthen the struggles of the day — modern day plebeian tribunes. That is the role the Alliance seeks to play by winning office.
These paragraphs are limited in that they only describe what our electoral work aims to do in the very short-term sense, in the here and now. An additional sentence under 3.5 could help to expand and argue why we see electoral work in the here and now as important to our aim of replacing the capitalist system with one of popular democracy and social ownership. This is an argument we have advanced in other documents (that I will look at in a moment), but our constitution, the fundamental framework for our organising and activism, needs to lay out this vision, the basis for our organising the way we do.
Towards a Socialist Australia elaborates on this point: “Socialists need to put forward socialist ideas in this arena, which is still regarded by the most working people as the main political forum and vehicle for satisfying their social and economic needs. Socialists need to use the opening provided by parliamentary elections to build up our profile and membership, win a hearing among broader sections of working people and thereby advance the social movements.
“Where feasible, socialists seek to win office to advance these aims. In the process of electoral work, we seek to expose the limitations and essentially anti-democratic nature of the system of capitalist parliamentary institutions and to explain how these can be replaced by a genuine system of popular self-government.”
This is pertinent to the Tendency’s proposals around changing our electoral work. While I think their proposal to completely abstain from all State and Federal elections is a bit too extreme and would damage our ability to return to those electoral spheres for a decade or more, it is perfectly in line with our perspectives to argue that “while we are so isolated and small, we need to have a more coherent strategy for getting where we want to be.” Rather than seeking to “dissolve” the Alliance, as I have seen argued repeatedly on social media and some AV contributions, this is clearly seeking to strengthen our electoral work.
Making our electoral campaigns too diffuse by running too many campaigns not only weakens them, but it undermines any potential for them to actually “build up our profile and membership, win a hearing among broader sections of working people and thereby advance the social movements,” and it’s very clear we need to be smarter about when and where we campaign, and not allow ourselves to approach elections as a routine that must be participated in.
We only need to look at the election results of our campaigns in the NSW Legislative Council to see the truth of this argument. In 2007 we won 15,142 votes, or 0.39%; in 2011, 9,770, or 0.25%; in 2015, 8489, or 0.2%. Our results in these elections have gone backwards.
This isn’t to insult any of the comrades who participated in those campaigns — I was one of them in 2011, and it was an exciting opportunity to attend several forums and protests, as well as have a press release calling for the Port Kembla steelworks to be nationalised published in the Illawarra Mercury. But many of the platforms we could speak upon as candidates we might have been able to speak upon as campaign leaders in our own right; the prior year I spoke at several climate rallies and events as a representative of the UoW student environment collective, for example.
For a considerable investment of organisational resources and energy, the Alliance did not make any headway or majorly grow our organisation in NSW out of those election campaign. Perhaps the profile of a couple of our activists were built up by these campaigns, but it is very hard to argue that they were a cost-effective investment of our most precious asset — our activist labour. On the other hand, the time we invested in some major campaigns, like the Stop CSG Illawarra movement, won our activists just as much profile, if not more, as well as building us strong connections and friendships with other parts of the class actively engaged in struggle. And, although all campaigns cannot be as successful, that one did result in an actual win, and advanced the position of the class in Australia.
As for the position put forward by comrade Renfrey Clarke — “Our goal in elections,” he says in Alliance Voices, “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 substantiate this claim, he points to anecdotal evidence of his own experience in the workplace, where “…the level of affection for Gina Rinehart is matched only by enthusiasm for gold-plated energy bills…” I can certainly relate to these sentiments, having come across them in my own workplaces in the last two to three years. But start talking about our socialist solutions, and my fellow worker’s eyes would tend to glaze over.
There’s no evidence to show that the concrete “fighting left demands” we put forward are having any effect whatsoever on working class consciousness. Getting tiny results in the elections, when the majority of the class understand the elections through the lens of winning and losing seats or government, is actually politically embarrassing. Unless we wage a good campaign, our demands like “nationalising the banks and mines” or “putting a tax on corporate transactions to pay for social welfare” actually appear more fringe, more unachievable and less palatable to the main body of the working class, precisely because nobody will vote for them.
I am familiar with some of the campaigns that our councillors in Freemantle-Walyalup and Moreland have been involved in, but as far as I have seen, we have spent far too little time evaluating where these positions and campaigns fit within our vision for genuinely shifting class consciousness and, ultimately, winning socialism in Australia, and what benefit our victories have been to our party and to the broader class struggle. This reflection is necessary; if we are to expand on our current success, we must understand it.
Other components of organising the way that we do that are only glancingly addressed in some of our documents — for example, what is our purpose in working in social movements? Are we seeking to build these campaigns as part of a process, building towards the necessary conditions for bringing about the fundamental social change we seek? Or are we participating in them as expressions of our principles, out of our moral obligation to fight for what we stand for, without any illusion that the generally small movements of today will play any part in fundamental social change? I think the former, yet our organisational approach is confused, and some activists within the Alliance might argue the latter.
Or do we simply seek to participate in movements only to argue that socialism is the only way we can address the problems of today, and to recruit members to our organisation? This is the attitude some socialist organisations of today take, to a far stronger degree than we do. In practice for the Alliance, our participation in movements for change is genuine and not opportunistic, although we make no secrets of our broader socialist goals or that we wish to recruit movement activists to our organisation. But this isn’t stated here in the constitution, or anywhere else in our documents.
We must achieve clarity on this question if we are to use the labour-power of our comrades effectively in social movements. We need to clarify exactly what we seek to get from our movement campaigning, as we have done in broad strokes for our electoral campaigning in the constitution and Members Guide, if we want to get it. That’s the only way we can be an effective fighting socialist organisation. If we are to be taken seriously, and to take ourselves seriously, then we need to put forward out vision of how we aim to achieve the change we seek.
The answer to this question — how do we see the campaigns and movements of today as contributing towards our struggle to replace the capitalist system with a socialist one? — isn’t answered in our constitution or Members Guide. Our position is barely indicated.
In TASA, it says: “A small revolutionary socialist group should help to build and initiate struggles or join existing struggles to win improvements in the here-and-now for the working class and all oppressed groups.”
This is the identifies our goal in working through campaigns: we should lead movements to win demands in the here and now. That means a kind of serious engagement that requires us to avoid turning up to every rally for every cause in the major cities, and instead marshalling our limited energy into those campaigns which we see as having the potential to win their demands, which we have the ability to intervene in seriously, and which will in the process advance the position of the class — “landing blows on the enemies of our class,” as comrade Renfrey Clarke puts it in his latest contribution.
TASA elaborates on our mass action approach: “The systematic championing by socialists of struggles against all the ills of the capitalist system is part of the process of development of the working class from the subject of capitalist oppression to the self-conscious power that can end minority class rule and organise the transition to a new classless society… Socialists should be serious builders of the movements and advocate steps that advance the movement, connect with the working class and bring the greatest possible number of people into action.”
Thus, the Tendency’s argument against the “hope that by being everywhere, even if poorly organised and unprofessionally, people will start [listening to] to us,” is completely in line with the organisational perspective outlined in TASA. Just as with our electoral work, the Alliance must get better at “thinking strategically” if we are to carry out that perspective to the best of our abilities. We must be serious about our movement work.
In other words, we have a responsibility to reject the approach often taken by socialists towards small social movements or campaigns, which sees them purely as means to cut the teeth of their newly-trained activists and recruit new ones. This approach often leads to ridiculous posturing to serve the supposed educational needs of those activists — finding the flimsiest of excuses to denounce the politics of other groups, rather than work constructively with them.
This is a sectarian behaviour that the Socialist Alliance has not been immune to, particularly in large cities, yet it runs counter to our goals of “winning improvements in the here and now”, and “develop[ing]… the self-conscious power” of the working class. The campaigns of today, even if small compared to historic ones in Australia or current movements around the world, play some part in shaping the struggle to overthrow the capitalist system. As such, we should approach them as serious, professional revolutionaries, with serious commitment to those we are going to champion.
Once again, however, I do not find myself in complete agreement with the concrete Tendency proposals to advance this aim, even if it on the right track. The concrete proposal of point 6 of the Tendency’s 10 Alternatives includes using our spaces to support campaigns and supporting other organising spaces, which many branches do already do, and calls on the Alliance to “seek to expand its areas of political campaigning” into areas such as squats and right to the city campaigns. While there could be a case that this would be a productive investment of our activist labour, without suggesting what areas of campaigning that we currently engage in that we should drop, it actually risks exacerbating the very problems of hyper-activism and rally-hopping that the tendency has identified as problems.
This is a look into a few of the main areas that the Tendency has identified as problems for the Alliance today where a reading of our core documents helps to shed some light on what approach we should take, and, as we can see, what the Tendency suggests is broadly in line with the stated aims and methods of the Socialist Alliance. However, I have not addressed some other areas of debate, including our media work. This is worth discussing in its own right, which I hope to do soon.