Don’t moan, organise


The Labor conference vote on gay marriage

“Goodbye Bill. I die like a true blue rebel. Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize.” — Joe Hill, IWW agitator, in a letter to Bill Hayward not long before his execution in 1915 on a framed up murder charge.

The outcome of the Labor Party national conference on gay marriage reform will no doubt bring a chorus of moaning from the far left about the Labor Party. John Passant of Socialist Alternative was quick to lead off the chorus:

“The party that screws over gays and lesbians and refugees and fears the views of its own members, most of whom are part of the 99 per cent, will screw over workers as workers for the 1 per cent.

“And tomorrow, guess what? They will vote to sell uranium to India.

“Labor’s conference is a con — the ALP remains a right-wing party, a party of neoliberalism.”

This was on the day left and democratic forces in the Labor Party won an important victory, changing the Labor Party’s platform to support gay marriage.

It’s true the right won a rearguard action to make the issue a conscience vote for MPs, so the battle is not over. Various media sources were quick to point out that will mean gay marriage reform will most likely be defeated in the present parliament.

But that’s not the end of the story. Abortion law reform, for example, was the result of a long struggle, in which the right and religious elements had to be beaten back, step by step, over many years of determined organising and agitation.

Even today, the result on abortion is a stalemate in most Australian states.  It’s decriminalised, and has been for decades, but still not legal, and religious fanatics sometimes try to re-establish their right to impose their views of conception and contraception on everyone.

The next focus for the gay marriage debate will be private members’ bills in the federal parliament, in which the Liberals will be under pressure to match the Labor Party in allowing a conscience vote. These bills will provide opportunities to further advance campaigns for greater democracy and tolerance.

All along, Senator Doug Cameron and the Labor left have been arguing that questions of equality are not a conscience issue, and that’s undeniable. The women’s movement argued that about abortion for many years, but the issue was in the end settled by conscience votes in most states.

In big social battles, that’s often the outcome. Even in the battle over conscription for the Vietnam war the eventual outcome, a resounding victory for the antiwar forces, was that the Whitlam government quietly shelved conscription in such a way that it could be brought back in a different social situation.

Since then, imperial military strategy has changed and conscript armies are no longer regarded as reliable in view of the Vietnam experience.

The conscience vote was the most that could be won on the floor of the Labor Party conference yesterday, further organisation will be necessary to take the matter further.

Labor’s policy change is in no way an act of leadership. It merely records how much social attitudes have change in response to many years of campaigning by the gay movement and its democratic allies, which have emboldened more and more gay people to assert their rights.

That’s so much the case that most large workplaces these days have openly gay and lesbian people, and ignorance and fear have been driven back by familiarity.

Anyone who expects leadership from the Labor Party will be waiting a long time. Labor policy usually confines itself to reflecting changes that have already taken place and struggles that have already been won.

Labor Party members are another matter, many participate in struggles for real social change, and when they do so in sufficient numbers they are a powerful force. Even more so if some of the party’s leaders commit themselves, as Arthur Calwell did against the Vietnam war and Mark Latham did against the Iraq war.

Battles fought in society at large usually rage in the Labor Party as well, and this conference decision registers that.

The task now is not to moan about Labor betrayals, it’s to find the best ways to take the next steps towards real victory, building on the important step taken yesterday by the Labor Party.


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16 Responses to “Don’t moan, organise”

  1. Andrew Ian Jamieson Says:

    Seriously, Ed, this is a rotten compromise. Gillard, and the factional leaders within the ALP know precisely what it means legislatively wise given Abbot’s reactionary views. It means there will be nothing done for years in Canberra – given a likely triumph of the conservatives at the next poll. Years!

    It is a rearguard action by the ALP hacks to stave off implementing a policy voted on by the ALP.

    Is it so much to ask the ALP to implement a policy it has now endorsed and has massive support within the wider community?

    Or are we to wait, and as you infer, that decisions taken by the rank and file of the ALP have to take years, if ever, be implemented and be subject to continual erosion!

    Ah, but you agree as your historical examples note.

    But you bemoan those who think democracy should abide – and lecture us about continually organising to fight for civil rights. As if this hasn’t been done to force the ALP to take a position, at least in theory!

    Let’s be at least honest! It is a cynical manouvre to stave off civil and human rights. Let’s call a spade a spade.

    No social victories have ever been won by anyone within the ALP, and the issue of gay and lesbian marriages is another example. It has been won by social movements that think outside of the ALP and in constant battle with the ALP.

  2. John Passant Says:

    I agree. Let’s organise. That’s why Socialist Alternative was on the ten thousand strong march and demonstration for equal love outside the Conference and helped build it and the campaign more generally. That’s why we were at the Sunday demonstration for refugee rights and helped build it and the campaign. Let’s organise against the betrayals of the ALP which includes the conscience vote. The struggle for equal love continues and will I believe only get bigger and stronger. It is a stuggle against Gillard and her Government.

  3. John Dowzard Says:

    It is a struggle against capitalism. All you social democrats need to take a jump to the right and let us communists get on with the job. Whilst you debate your little petty bourgeois squabbles true Marxists will eventually alter the system forever. Unite with the party that refuses to work within a capitalist system – the Communist Party of Australia

    • Ed Lewis Says:

      John, marriage equality is a cross-class, democratic issue that is already causing severe divisions in the Liberal Party.

      So yes, it is a struggle that can weaken capitalism, partly because it works on a contradiction in the main party of capitalism in this country, and among its supporters.

      It also has the potential to strengthen democracy and give people confidence to struggle about a range of issues.

      I don’t think you have much of a grasp of the united front tactic. You seem to have no conception of building alliances when you talk about standing aside and letting the CPA “get on with the job”.

      To start with, you’d better explain just what sort of “job” you have in mind. A lot of people with some knowledge of history will get very nervous at that sort of talk.

      Political parties alone don’t change history, very large numbers of people acting in their own interests do. It is they who will build a new society. Parties will have a role, and it’s to be hoped there will be more than one. It’s not at all clear that the CPA will be one of them.

  4. Ed Lewis Says:

    I think Andrew and John will find fairly quickly that the defeat of a private member’s bill is far from a foregone conclusion.

    That’s how it might turn out, but a lot of water will go under the bridge before that point.

    Already there are signs of push in the Liberal Party for a conscience vote. Malcolm Turnbull has reportedly been telling people he favours a conscience vote, a South Australian senator has come out publicly for a conscience vote, and even Barnaby Joyce has said he wouldn’t oppose it.

    Abbott is ducking and weaving, saying all votes in the Liberal Party are conscience votes because the Liberals don’t expel MPs for breaking caucus.

    And no, none of this means I have any time at all for the Liberal Party. This is a cross-class issue and some people in the Liberals have a material interest in this matter, while others regard themselves as democrats.

    My main point about John’s article is that dismissing the Labor Party as a whole is not very useful tactically or analytically when the Labor left has just waged a big fight on a number of issues, and had an important partial win on marriage equality.

    On the other big issue, uranium, the left lost by 21 votes out of 400. I think a smart left would be looking for alliances in those quarters, not dismissing the whole thing as a con.

  5. John Passant Says:

    I don’t dismiss the ALP as a whole. As I say in the article ‘Maybe the genuine Left in the ALP should now think about leaving Labor and joining the revolutionaries and others in the struggle for justice, equity and fairness; in the struggle against this rotten and reactionary Labor Government.’

    • Ed Lewis Says:

      John, the Labor left is not going to leave the Labor Party to join groups of 500 or so, tops, and it wouldn’t be a good thing if they did. They power of mass politics was on display in the past few days, and that’s not what happens among the “revolutionaries”.

      Small far left groups have a long history, and do some good work, and I have a lot of respect for much of the work of Socialist Alternative and other groups, but such groups are very unlikely to become mass organisations through organic growth.

      Such groups might develop broader influence, but it will be by reaching out and forming alliances, not by dismissing the Labor conference as a “con”.

      Most of the important votes of the conference, were decided by 20-odd votes out of 400, that doesn’t look like a “con” to me, but a real clash on important policy questions.

      I’ve seen a Labor for Refugees message this morning pointing out that their motions went down by 206 to 179, ie 25 votes, and that was after right faction Labor for Refugees supporters, such as John Robertson, were prevented from speaking.

      The uranium policy was passed a smaller margin than that.

      The opposition to many of the neoliberal policies of the government was close to half the conference. That makes the Labor left the biggest force in this country opposing the worst policies of the Gillard government.

      The Labor left should stay where it is and keep fighting, and the rest of the left should consider how it can help that fight. The demonstration for marriage equality was a good example.

  6. John Passant Says:

    By the way ABC News is reporting that “Federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott says it is unlikely Coalition MPs will be given a conscience vote on gay marriage.”

    • Ed Lewis Says:

      Yes, Abbott will oppose a conscience vote. That fight hasn’t really started yet, but Turnbull is known to support a conscience vote, as does Simon Birmingham, a South Australian senator, and there will be others.

      Barnaby Joyce has reverted to type this morning, but he has previously said he didn’t oppose a conscience vote.

      There will be a private member’s bill. Stephen Jones, a NSW Labor MP, has said he will move one, and if he doesn’t Adam Bandt has said he will.

  7. John Passant Says:

    Ed, first the private members’ Bill from Labor is an attempt to take the running from the Greens. Second the Greens are a much greater threat at the moment to the ALP than the revolutionary left (although my comrades in Egypt are getting a hearing and growing.) What does Labor have to offer young and idealistic activists? Join the Labor Left and lose every major battle and end up publicly supporting and voting in parliament for policies you fundamentally disagree with? Or join the Greens who oppose uranium sales to India, who oppose offshore processing of refugees, who support equal love entirely, who want the Australian Building and Construction Commission abolished, who want to tax the rich and extend the MRRT? The answer seems a non brainer to me.

  8. Ed Lewis Says:

    John, I hope the Labor bloke moves the bill because that would cause more of a problem for the Labor caucus, particularly the right.

    Secondly, young people join the Labor Party regardless of why you or I say. Last time I heard, Labor students were a pretty substantial current. I understand the National Union of Students conference is coming up in a week or so. It will be interesting to see how numbers line up there.

    As for the Greens. I work for them in elections because their policies are better, but that doesn’t mean the Labor left is not important.

  9. Jolly Says:

    Most Australian politicians (on both sides) are an uncool mob. That we need to cling to an old “Marriage Act’ definition is laughable to say the least. There are millions of divorced couples who have already contravened the Marriage Act (… entered into for life). The Gay-Lesbian right to marriage is in limbo. The current Labour leadership is incapable of making any enlightened reforms as they are only engaged in political populism, especially in their marginal seats. The only time both parties (Liberal-Labour) commit to a bipartisan agreement is when it comes to their remuneration. Mr No (Abbott) will finally say “yes” when he gets a 30-50 per cent salary increment. Who cares about the rest of ordinary people? They are only good for paying taxes which are used to prop up feuding political parties

  10. Ed Lewis Says:


    I’ve never been an enthusiast for marriage of any kind. I’ve never felt any need for church or state to sanction my personal relationships, and many others have drawn the same conclusion, so the Marriage Act is irrelevant for many.

    Many though, still prefer to do the conventional thing, and it’s their right to do so, regardless of their sexual choice or orientation, and they should be able to do so equally. I attend weddings of my more conventional relatives and friends without prejudice.

    It’s widely accepted that Australia is a democracy, although that democracy is severely limited.

    Gay and lesbian people, for example, have had to fight for many years for some of that democracy to include them.

    In fact, what we know as democracy is rule by the most powerful, which in our society at the present time means those with the most money.

    That was evident in the Labor Party’s uranium debate on the weekend. Powerful mining interests have bought influence in the Labor Party, not necessarily through money changing hands, but through many years of costly professional lobbying, which the ordinary people who make up activist groups are unable to sustain. For mining companies this sort of thing is small change.

    The uranium miners’ strategy is simple: outlast the activists, disillusion them and wear them down.

    The powers that be want us to be disillusioned and cynical about our political system, because disillusioned and cynical people are likely to do nothing except whinge.

    The people who the powers that be really fear are not the disillusioned and cynical, but those willing to keep fighting.

    You make the beginnings of an analysis of what’s wrong with our political system, but your conclusions are extremely gloomy. That’s what they want.

    There was a lot of focus on the Labor Party conference because there was a fight. Almost half the conference consisted of people who had not been bought and were willing to work for change. That’s what our wealthy and powerful rulers fear.

    The Greens, similarly, come in for a lot of bashing in the media, also because the most powerful in our society perceive them as a threat. They are unbought, and show no signs of being susceptible to buying off.

    Every little bit of progress towards a better political system must be ripped from the hands of the wealthy and powerful and that can be done by people who see ways to be politically active, in the Labor Party, the Greens, a trade union or elsewhere.

    Moaning reflects a realisation that something is wrong, but that’s not enough. The wealthy and powerful and their bought politicians take no notice of that. They know it’s harmless. Organising, whether by joining the Greens, the Labor Party or some other activist group is the next step, and the one they fear, and the only one that will force them to concede greater democracy on marriage equality or any other issue.

  11. MAX LANE Says:

    Hi Ed,

    I think you may very well turn out to be right. If the Liberals allow a conscience vote then perhaps there can be a win in the parliamentary arena for equal rights to marriage (although personally I would like to see the abolition of a state sanctified marriage status — but maybe that is something that will be on the agenda somewhat later.) If I was a member of the ALP, which I was in the 1980s — now I am in the RSP, I would have campaigned against a conscience vote, but I agree that it can be classified, in the current conditions, as a partial victory. Being partial, of course, it means, as you say, that there will need to be more organising and campaigning to extend the reality of this partial win. In such campaigning, people from inside and outside the ALP should try to work together, while they have the same goals.

    I left the ALP in the 1980s to join the SWP/DSP (when you were still a member). I am not inclined to change my path. I don’t believe that there is any solution to the horrors of capitalism, which I see here in Indonesia in their worst form, apart from a full-scale revolution and that continuity in the ability to explain that idea will be a key element, among others, to any change. And I still think an organisation dedicated to doing that is crucial which is why I am still in the RSP. Being in the RSP now, though, is a re-building project. The RSP exists because all of us who were in the DSP before we were expelled participated in making serious mistakes, of various kinds. Some of those were mistakes unique to us in the DSP, some were mistakes flowing from reading a bad, perhaps out-of-date, road map. In this latter respect, I think a lot of thinking needs to be done along the lines proposed in Zizek’s TO BEGIN FROM THE BEGINNING article. In a process of learning by doing, a more-or-less new road map will be needed as the 21st century unfolds.

    But I am not going to join or prioritise working through the ALP at the moment — although I don’t think I should have an attitude demonising every ALP member as a starting point. I believe in the ideas of Marx and Lenin, in their most revolutionary and humanist versions, in revolutionary socialism. I want to be a part of re-building a an organisation that can explain and interest people in those ideas. That is what I want the RSP to become. Of course, I know that ideas alone are not enough. Every form of organised campaign activity around progressive goals, however partial is so valuable and a group that supports an eventual socialist outcome must also support all such action. Sometimes critiques of campaign stargies and tactics might seem necessary, but they should stand on the strength of analysis and ideas. At the moment, that can be the only real basis for such a small group as us claiming the right to be listened to.

    Best, Max Lane

  12. Ed Lewis Says:


    Win, lose or draw, the fight about marriage equality will shake up both the major parties and could be won with sufficient mobilisation. It looks like the fight will definitely happen, through either a Labor or Green private member’s bill. Mobilisation outside will strengthen the push for change inside both parties, but particularly Labor.

    Labor and the Coalition are well behind the public on this issue. One commentator wrote that the change to the platform brought the Labor Party up to about 1998, and that seems about right.

    There will also be a determined push by opponents of change to mobilise religious elements. It’s almost comical to see how quickly Muslim imams have become good guys in the media if they will say something against same-sex marriage. Not so long ago these people were the right’s worst nightmare, demonised in the tabloid media in particular.

    The conscience vote at the Labor conference was a fallback position for the right once they realised about half of their own delegates were supporting marriage equality. That wasn’t just the left, it was overwhelming, and there was nothing the right could do to stop it. The conscience vote got up because the right was later able to whip sufficient of its delegates back into line.

    I don’t think anyone on the left necessarily has to change their path. I’m a Greens supporter and am not about to change that either. Experienced and educated leftists are needed everywhere.

    But I think it should be recognised that probably the largest section of the left in Australia is in the Labor Party, and it had almost half of the conference on the big issues. On uranium and refugees, for example, the result would have gone the other way had 12-14 delegates changed their vote.

    The commentary I’ve seen so far from the left outside the ALP ignores this, which in my opinion is not very good analysis of any kind, Marxist or calathumpian. I’m certain it’s not Marxism, which should start with facts.

    Capitalism is entering a deep crisis. The neoliberal phantasmagoria has brought disaster to the world, but it’s still the economic orthodoxy. That is merely deepening the crisis.

    Australia has been lucky so far in the global crisis because of a huge minerals boom, but Europe is sinking deeper into crisis, and it is China’s biggest export market. If China stops buying Australian minerals, or even slows its purchases substantially, the situation will change quickly.

    Revolution is never made by people who talk about revolution, but by large numbers of people deciding to fight for change and organising to achieve that end. They might be campaigning for peace, bread and land or an end to subsidies to the big banks. A driving force of the Occupy Movement in the US is the collapse of the housing bubble.

    Conscious socialists can help movements to emerge and to achieve their ends, but we don’t create them.

    I’ve chosen not to be a member of a small socialist group because I think I can be more useful elsewhere, but social change is a complex process and many approaches are possible and necessary, provided they are founded in a clear understanding of reality.

    Marx didn’t regard himself as a Marxist, nor did Lenin consider himself a Leninist. They were above all scientific socialists. I’m cautious about theories put forward in the name of Marxism, Leninism or Trotskyism, because a lot of mistaken theories have been put forward, and mistaken courses pursued, in those names.

    The great political thinkers of the labour movement based themselves on a materialist, or scientific, approach to reality and that’s what present-day socialists should do, in my opinion.

  13. max lane Says:

    Hi Ed,

    I agree with you on this key point re the same-sex marriage laws campaign: “Mobilisation outside will strengthen the push for change inside both parties, but particularly Labor”. I was not ina position to follow the ALP Congress debates and manoeuvrings in a detailed way, but your explanation makes sense.

    On the more general issues, you raise, I can see (at least) two major points of difference between us. You comment: “I don’t think anyone on the left necessarily has to change their path.” As I said, I still hold to the view that a systematic, collective effort by people using more-or-less the same theoretical tools to analysis reality — in the materialist, scientific way you mention — is an essential ingredient to any successful fundamental change. Analysing and then explaining reality, as it changes, is more likely to be done more effectively if the effort is cooperative and collective than not — although there is no automatic guarantee that any particular group of people working collectively will get things right, even using the best tools. The whole idea of explaining ideas is to convince people of them, i.e. to abandon the ideas they have at the moment and change their path.

    Of course, a collective leadership of people who are successfully leading a big movement for change can put their ideas forcefully — though again they might be wrong. A group of 50 people can put their ideas passionately, but the “forcefulness” needs to be restrained by some humility. Actually I am very proud of some of the achievements of the DSP/SWP while I was a member — but I know that such achievements as there were provide no basis for speaking with authority. First, they are part of a history that nobody knows about anymore, especially not among new, young activists. Secondly, they have had no visible accumulative positive effect — they have been outbalanced by the negatives as far as visible goes. A small group can only rely on the passion, clarity and provocativeness — in whatever form, stunted or nuanced — to win a hearing and then convince people, while trying to help build whatever struggles unfold. But again ideas are crucial, preferably — as you say — based on scientific socialism. We will need huge numbers of people to make a revolution, and that movement will need ideas. Some tactics and methods will arise spontaneously, but most of the ideas will not. There will need to be cadres, and in the end, millions of them.

    I think my second query, although I must admit despite being in this game for 40 years now, is still exploratory. You say: “But I think it should be recognised that probably the largest section of the left in Australia is in the Labor Party,” I know too this was oft stated view of the late comrade Bob Gould, a remarkable activist. I remember reading one of his articles where he put a very strong case for the size of this ALP connected left milieu, numbering it, I think, in the 1000s or even more. If this is true, it is a very complex and layered truth. When I was in the ALP, in the early 1980s, there was a very active and large activist ALP Left. I remember at the weekly organizing meetings for the Palm Sunday ant-nuclear events in Canberra at least half of the 50-100 activists who turned up would be from the ALP. That was the same around the country. Then after 1983, especially after the Hawke government abandoned East Timor, floated the Australian dollar and then allowed the testing of MX missiles in Australia, that whole Left activist milieu dropped out, dropped away. The Nuclear Disarmament Party was one temporary response. Personally, I think the Greens have taken and are taking up the space that the ALP Left — what I still think of (symbolically) as the Jim Cairns left — used to take up, although with its own style.

    Post-1983 the Left inside the ALP is very different. It is more layered, more ambiguous, more contradictory and, to the extent that there are more serious Left fighters, they are less organised. I doubt whether, for example, a Chris Cain or a Jenny Haines are organizing a faction. Networks, issue alliances and so on, no doubt they exist. My impression is that the Left is more atomized, and a consequence also less ambitious. The reality is that since 1983, the Left has had little oomph. That is a long time. As a consequence, those who control the ALP have been able to move even further to the right. In the last year or so, if we read Gillard’s speeches, the abandonment of social democratic reformism is even more open. Still, it is there. I agree that in campaigning work, the starting point should not be automatic rejection of working with ALP people and definitely should not include an approach to analysis that simply negates the whole thing and ignores it.

    There is also a question, for me, of, I suppose, “layers” that apply here, vis-à-vis the Greens as well as the ALP. Almost all of the ALP, including a big section of the Left, either consciously support or acquiesce in the idea that capitalism can be reformed. I think this applies too for the Greens, especially, but not only among the parliamentary wing. If we go back to the issue of there being a struggle of ideas, at the level of the struggle of ideas, this view — that capitalism can be reformed — is not simply a competing or rival idea to socialism but is an enemy idea. This is where tactics — as well as humanity — comes in. Tactics, because sometimes important movements or activities may be led, initiated or depend on people who espouse enemy ideas and socialists will need to work with and support them. Humanity, because it is necessary to understand and then hold rigidly to the understanding that the espouser of an enemy idea can be a decent human being, or even a better human being than oneself — until proven clearly otherwise. (Indeed, experience also teaches that espousers of revolutionary ideas can be crap human beings.)

    How to be unrelenting and effective in opposition to enemy ideas but also effective in working with those who, actively or passively espouse those ideas, while engaging in other important struggles for progress? Not a new question, at all, I know. And I don’t think there is any magic answer — except to make sure that the question is asked on a daily basis.


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