A response to Max Lane
Max responded to my observations about the Labor Party conference, and particularly the decision on marriage equality, with two fairly long and thoughtful comments on organisation and the left that require a thoughtful response, which I will provide to the best of my ability.
But firstly, because this discussion began on the matter of Labor’s decision to support marriage equality, it is clear that this will now be an issue in the next federal election and it will be important to support any candidates, particularly Labor Party candidates, who come under attack because of their democratic stance.
The right-wing media started saying immediately after the decision that Labor would lose seats because of it and no doubt there will be a campaign to make that happen.
It’s unlikely that such a campaign will succeed because the issue of marriage equality is overwhelmingly popular in opinion polls, but sections of the Labor right will seize on any pretext to claim the policy is an electoral liability and try to overturn it, so it’s important that candidates who stand up on this issue are supported.
The right-wing media have already begun trying to whip up a religious reaction against marriage equality, and in this they are trying, as they try to do in other areas, to Americanise Australian politics but they face the difficulty that religion, and particularly fundamentalist Protestant religion, doesn’t have the same weight in Australian society. For that we can all count ourselves extremely fortunate.
Parts of the right-wing media have even been forced to seek religious allies among Muslim clerics, usually their sworn enemy. This is no doubt causing great consternation among the more deranged sections of the right, which have been whipped into Islamophobia by the same media.
The next election will pose a dilemma for those who want to claim that Labor is merely a capitalist party like the Liberals, but not for those who have some variant of the view that it is a party dominated by capitalist policies with the important difference that it has a working class base and particularly the affiliation of most of the important trade unions. This view comes in various forms in far left groups: liberal-bourgeois party, bourgeois workers party, etc, but the various policies mostly have similar content and practical conclusions: an ultimate preference for Labor over the Liberals.
The main exception to this is the Socialist Equality Party, which in the last federal election took its analysis that Labor is a capitalist party to the logical conclusion and directed its preferences equally to Liberal and Labor.
Some, of course, will be so fearful of sowing illusions in capitalism that they will abstain, either by remaining largely silent about the election or going further and advocating abstention. This is a simplification to the point that reality becomes unrecognisable. It using scientific socialism not as a tool of analysis but as a shield against reality, and at that point it ceases being scientific (or as others would call it, Marxist).
As a Greens supporter I see no particular difficulty. I will be advocating an ultimate preference to Labor, particularly Labor candidates under attack on the marriage equality issue. No matter what the Greens eventually decide, that is how I will be voting and urging others to vote.
The problem of the Labor Party
ML: “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.”
Many people left the Labor Party in the mid-1980s as the Hawke government’s attacks on the trade union movement unfolded in the form of the prices and incomes accord.
There’s no doubt that the accord and other policies of the Hawke and later Keating governments betrayed the interests of the working people who voted Labor hoping for governments that would represent and defend their rights and interests.
At the time of this assault on traditional Labor policies, some on the left, including myself, thought this might cause the historic break of the working class from allegiance to the Labor Party that Trotskyists and other leftist had long expected.
It turned out, however, to be a partial break, leading to the formation of the Nuclear Disarmament Party and later growth of the Greens, which in turn went on to partly replace the old Labor left as more or less the representative in Australian politics of left Social Democratic views, with of course, an environmental emphasis. It confuses some that the Greens don’t have the traditional Social Democratic affiliation of unions, but that’s about where they fit in the political spectrum.
The breaks of the mid-1980s and later were partial, and left unfinished work in the Labor Party, because the majority of the working class continued to identify its interests with Labor, and the trade unions maintained their affiliation with Labor, although many unions slowly recognised what damage the accord had done to working class rights and organisation, and probably most now recognise that and are more guarded in their relations with Labor governments as a result.
The Labor Party certainly has been weakened by the post-1980s breaks, which are the political cost of its right-wing trajectory. Its failures on refugees in particular have cost it heavily and strengthened the Greens.
But leftists have continued to organise in the Labor Party, and their work is useful. The Labor Party always has been contested territory, and should continue to be so. It has been important at times in achieving important democratic reforms, and the marriage equality battle indicates that it continues to be important in that.
That doesn’t mean Labor is the initiator of such reforms, but important changes in social attitudes are usually reflected in Labor and passed into law as a result. So far, no other organisation has emerged to fill that role. There are plenty who would like to fill that role, including the Greens, Socialist Alliance, Socialist Alternative, the RSP and others, but none have proved themselves sufficiently with the public, and particularly the working class, to step into that role.
Moreover, none of the smaller groups (from this category I exclude the Greens) are likely to make much progress unless they can prove equal to complex strategic challenges.
The composition and role of the left
The whole of the left is in a weaker position than it was in the mid-1980s, not just the Labor left.
The exception of course, is the Greens, which are stronger largely as a result of partly accidental regroupment of Social Democrats who left the Labor Party, and some who went looking for a new home after the disappearance of the Communist Party, which was a Social Democratic formation by the time it dissolved.
The emergence of environmentalism as a political current is, of course, a factor in the emergence of the Greens, but its biggest membership and electoral boosts have come from episodic paroxysms of crisis in the Labor Party, particularly over refugee policy.
Not everyone in the Greens is necessarily happy about that. Some of the more traditional environmentalists don’t like it at all, but most recognise that a mass formation will naturally have tensions, disagreements and even struggles. Cate Faehrmann’s outburst over the Israel boycott campaign is the clearest indication so far of that process, and that has resulted in a small adjustment to the Greens’ policy on that campaign.
The right-wing media sometimes take poke at this fairly small division in the Greens to see if there’s any mischief to be made. So far they have been largely unsuccessful.
All that leaves us with a multi-focal left facing a complex set of tasks, particularly in the Labor Party, the Greens and trade unions. These are the mass organisations that left strategies must ultimately focus on.
These days a majority of leftists are still in the Labor Party and the Greens. There are probably 2000-3000 activists nationally in small left groups, at a generous estimate, and none of those groups could seriously claim to in any way match the social reach and influence of the mass formations. (I don’t know of any that make such a claim, just so I’m not misunderstood.) Moreover, none of those groups shows any sign of having a strategy to achieve mass influence.
That doesn’t mean there’s no role for propaganda groups, but their role is largely limited to education, publishing and some forms of street action. That’s important work, but it doesn’t contribute much on a strategic level unless it influences the mass organisations.
Influencing mass consciousness
ML: “I still hold to the view that a systematic, collective effort by people using more-or-less the same theoretical tools to analyse reality — in the materialist, scientific way you mention — is an essential ingredient to any successful fundamental change.”
I agree that a theoretical understanding is important, but study of theory without experience in mass political organisation has some bizarre results. The World Socialist Web Site is the clearest example at the moment, but some of the views and propaganda of other groups shows very little theoretical grasp or capacity for dealing with complexity.
Organising demonstration, pickets and petitions is not sufficient experience to create competent political activists, and that’s all that many activists in the far left groups ever get. That and selling newspapers, maybe a bit of writing.
Any person or group who aspires to mass political influence must learn the skills, and I don’t see that happening. I see activists who I’ve known for many years apparently going backwards in their skills after many years in these groups.
The small far left groups generally don’t lack theory these days, they generally lack mass experience, and their long isolation sometimes leads to frustrated and erratic language, theories and actions. In the hope of avoiding the standard accusations I usually face when I discuss these matters, I’ll refer to an examination of a past episode by my late friend and comrade Bob Gould, in which impatience with isolation set in motion the eventual near-disintegration of the old ISO. Those problems were largely overcome, I think, in the formation of the new organisation, Solidarity.
Politics of transformation
ML: “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.”
I’ll take it that you mean the fundamental problems of capitalism cannot be reformed away, because of course we agree that reforms are possible.
The Greens are explicitly committed to honouring the Australian constitution, which is of course a capitalist constitution, so it’s true that both Labor and the Greens are committed to reform, not revolution.
As a supporter of the Greens, I find its framework useful for political activity that extends genuine democracy and defends the rights and interests of working people. At some point the commitment to the constitution may become an obstacle to that work. If it does, no doubt there will be a big struggle over that and I imagine that would take place in a very different social context to the present.
This is a very old and important discussion. To take it up in detail I would have to make this post much longer, and it is probably trying the patience of many readers already.
I think a useful relatively recent contribution was made by Peter Camejo. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll refer you to that and ask what you think. I largely agree with Camejo’s approach.