Labor Tribune and left discussion

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Reply to Bob Gould

Marcus Strom
Editor, Labor Tribune

Dear Bob,

Thanks for the warm welcome you extend to Labor Tribune. In these bleak times for Marxists, revolutionary socialists, communists and radicals of various stripe, voices of camaraderie are welcome.

Labor Tribune aims to contribute to a rebirth of socialist thought and practice in the labour movement. In that sense, we aim to be more than a discussion site, but also be a catalyst for serious, informed activity. What is needed is the establishment of a political centre in the labour movement. One that is able to provide resources for discussion, debate and, most importantly, practical outcomes. One that arms working-class activists with the theoretical and practical tools to achieve profound social change.

That will be a long fight. But it is a struggle to which Labor Tribune hopes to contribute.

For that we will need to strive for unity among Marxists and broad layers of working class activists; but not at any price. We will need unity around the best ideas the labour movement can collectively develop.

These ideas must not only be anti-capitalist but aim for a profound transformation of power to an active and engaged citizenship; from private property and the interests of the big-end of town to the working millions and their families.

I welcome your call for serious discussion to this end. It was good to see you at our launch, you spoke concisely at your first bite. The second time, not so much. Sometimes less really is more.

The main political point you raise in your letter concerns the Green Party. You say that I dismiss this party as middle class and argue that “viewed in a serious sociological way, the Greens’ constituency is working class, mainly from the new social layers of the working class”.

On this point you are no doubt correct, but you are not arguing against what I said. I was not talking sociologically.

In my review of David McKnight’s Beyond Right and Left, I said: “The modern Green Party is an unstable petty-bourgeois political formation; its overall direction is to seek a `green compromise’ with capital.”

I stand by this postage-stamp analysis for what it is.

Saying the Green Party is petty-bourgeois is not intended as a sociological description of the Greens as middle class (though many of them are) or to argue that its electoral base does not includes urban workers (which it no doubt does). Rather it is to describe its political program, which while critical of the excesses of capitalism, is not based on the working-class movement and its democratic potential to supersede the capitalist system. In this sense it is a petty-bourgeois formation. And it is unstable because it will be increasingly torn between accommodation with capital and a utopian, Rousseau-like hagiography of nature as a thing to be preserved.

Therefore my description of the Green Party as “petty-bourgeois” concerns its political program, not the sociological make-up of its constituency or even its membership.

When Marxists talk about the class orientation of a political formation in any scientific sense, they talk about political essence, not the sociological make-up. Though that is not unimportant.

The current program of the ALP is without doubt thoroughly bourgeois; the current ALP leadership aims to manage capitalism. The Green Party’s program aims to ameliorate the worst excesses of capitalism, without going beyond the system of capital accumulation. In the final analysis, the political essence of the Green program is not based on the active self-liberation of the working class.

In many senses, the Green program is backward looking. Small business, population controls, local organisation as opposed to global. It does not see the future as coming from the highest that capitalism has developed: a global economy, a global working-class. Rather, it tends towards the “small is beautiful” manifesto of self-sufficiency and autarky.

Standing between a thoroughly bourgeois program for the management of capital and a program of superceding capital marks it out as petty-bourgeois.

This does not imply for a minute that all Greens are middle-class dilettantes, though there are quite a few of them. It doesn’t contest the fact that the Green Party is on many social issues to the left of the ALP.

However, the Greens are divided. In NSW we see the “deep-green” element around Ian Cohen and on the other the “watermelons” (green outside, red inside) around Lee Rhiannon and Sylvia Hale. The “watermelons” are clearly ascendant in the NSW Greens as their ticket received 71 per cent of the internal party vote that preselected the top two Green candidates for the NSW upper house next year.

The ascendancy of the “class-struggle” Greens is to be welcomed, despite the fact that many of them also indulge in childish sectarianism towards the ALP left. Their blocking with conservative councillors to lock the ALP out of council positions in Marrickville is unfortunate.

This schism within the Green Party shows their inherent instability. And we have seen similar issues of concern in Green parties in other countries: notably Germany where the Green foreign minister supported the Nato bombing of Belgrade.

I do not know if the Green Party has reached its psephological high-water mark as many pundits are saying. But whether they have or not, the role of Marxists is to join in united activity with the best of the Greens where we can, while arguing with them for the need for a working-class program and party.

Your other point is on language, which of course has its own importance.

You say that my “whole social and cultural background” is in the Stalinist movement. This is a gross over-simplification. My background, as with everyone’s, is multi-layered. However, there is a partial truth here.

I grew up in what I call the “official communist” movement. My Jewish grandfather was a member of the British Socialist Party’s “Hands Off Russia” campaign in London after World War I. He met his wife in the Communist Party of New Zealand; he was an organiser for the Communist Party of Australia for many years, including when it was illegal. He was the secretary of the Australasian Book Society. My parents met in the CPA’s Eureka Youth League and my family was involved in the Peter Symon, Jack McPhillips, Pat Clancy led Socialist Party from the beginning. I was in the SPA’s youth league. I went on regular camping trips with Edgar and Tess Ross and their family. That is my early tradition. And I’m proud of it.

Of course my politics have moved a long way from the sclerotic tomes of Moscow’s Progress Publishers. I made my position on the Moscow trials clear at the launch of Labor Tribune.

Yes, I use the word Trotskyite as an adjective. I’m fully aware of where it came from, though I don’t know the Russian etymology of the suffixes -ite or -ist. Even so, I also use Stalinite as an adjective.

For many of the Trotskyists I have met, I am an impossibility: someone “organically” emerging from “Stalinism” who stands full square against the crimes of Stalinism and argues for the democratic and revolutionary heart of Marxist theory and practice. I (occasionally) use “Trotskyite” to remind Trotskyists of where I come from. I am proud of the radical working class tradition that the official communist movement represented in the 20th century. Yes, it was based on incorrect politics; yes it led to tragic defeat in Germany, yet it still managed to organise the best, the brightest and the most-dedicated class fighters of their generation. We cannot escape this historical truth.

Once again, thanks for the letter. You mention your 52 years in the ALP. It is unfortunate that we have no serious network of socialist activists in the ALP and labour movement after all that time. Perhaps now is the time to turn that around.

I look forward to future debates and activity that helps arm the working class in Australia with the tools they need to confront capitalism and its state.

Marcus Strom’s response

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