What kind of organisation in an age of revolution?

In a recent issue of Green Left Weekly, Peter Boyle published an article titled “An age of revolution: organise, don’t agonise”. Boyle, the national secretary of the Socialist Alliance, called attention to a number of the pressures and false ideas that capitalist society uses to discourage us from organising against it: the idea that we can’t change things, or can’t do so now, or that the most we can hope for is a few reforms, not fundamental change.

Boyle is certainly right about such pressures. I would also agree with him when he writes of “a deep connection between organising the movements around particular issues and organising for fundamental social change”, and when he points to the importance of ongoing organisation to “keep alive the accumulated lessons of the various struggles and seek to generalise those lessons”.


Boyle also rejects the notion that revolutions are only for some distant future: as the title of his article says, we live in an age of revolutions. Like nearly everyone on the left, Boyle and the Socialist Alliance are inspired and encouraged by the sudden upsurge of the Occupy movement. All organised leftists face the questions: What can we learn from this movement? What can we help it to learn? How can we work as part of it and with it to help it go forward?

I will not try to summarise the entire article, which I encourage people to read for themselves (http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/49653). Rather, I would like to discuss in more detail two of what Peter Boyle calls three “valuable lessons to be gained from the experience of previous movements for system change”, which he hopes the Occupy movement will take on board. (His third “lesson” is on the importance of direct or participatory democracy and elected leaderships, points I certainly agree with.)

The two “lessons” are that collective (rather than individual) action is necessary to overcome the 1%, and that our organisations need to be serious and committed, able to learn from our collective experience and to preserve and share that learning.

Unity and independence

That’s fine as far as it goes, but I think it needs to go further. Independent “collective political action” is key, the first lesson says in several different ways, but that doesn’t tell us much in the absence of further explanation. Independent of what? Is collective political action through the Greens independent? Through the left in the Labor Party? And what kind of organisation is needed to keep collective political action independent? The article doesn’t address this question.

Boyle writes: “... the 99% must be kept divided because independent collective political action by the 99% would be fatal to the rule of the 1%”. This seems to confuse two different things: unity and independence. Division among the 99% doesn’t prevent independent collective political action; if it did, such action would be impossible, because there will never be unanimity about anything among 99% of the population.

It is a truism that “divide and rule” is a standard weapon of the capitalists. But one of the ways they keep us divided is by “uniting” most of us around false ideas, such as “We’re all threatened by migrants/Muslims/unfair foreign competition/high wages that hurt the economy”. The ruling class pushes “unity” — “national interest” — quite vigorously whenever that suits it, which is often.

So the sentence quoted above would make more sense as: “... the 99% must be kept dependent because independent collective political action by the 99% would be fatal to the rule of the 1%”. This brings us back to the question of how we understand the independence of collective political action. I understand it as the exploited and/or oppressed acting in their own interests, without regard for the needs of their exploiters or oppressors or of those exploiters and oppressors’ political representatives. This suggests a need for some common understanding and shared goals among the exploited and/or oppressed — in other words, a program.

Boyle also writes in this section: “The 1% have the money but our strength is in our numbers, our unity and our organisation”. I think that is only partly right, and therefore partly wrong.

Our strength is in our numbers, our unity, our organisation and our ideas. Unity and organisation bring us closer to overcoming the 1% only to the degree that unity and organisation are directed by a realistic program for getting from where we are now to where we want to be in a few days/weeks/months/years. Both the ALP and the Liberal Party are made up mostly of working people and therefore represent a certain amount of “unity” among members of the 99%. But I am sure Peter Boyle would not regard a merger of Labor and the Liberals as a step forward on the road to a socialist Australia, even though it would represent greater unity and organisation. Whether unity and organisation are progressive depends on what they are unity and organisation for.

What road to people’s power?

So, what are the basic ideas that socialists should recommend as useful for uniting and organising around? And what kind of organisation is most suited to advancing those ideas? That is, what political strategy leads toward a world run by the 99%? Boyle’s article doesn’t directly address these questions, but other Socialist Alliance documents do.

In particular, for its upcoming national conference, SA is circulating and discussing a draft resolution titled “Towards a socialist Australia”. This, unfortunately, doesn’t offer a clear way forward either for socialists or for the Occupy movement. In fact, it appears to advocate paths that have long been discredited by historical experience, in particular what used to be called a “parliamentary road to socialism”.

Under the subheading “For real democracy, for people’s power”, the resolution states, “A first step is public ownership of the economic base of society ...”. If this is a first step towards people’s power, then it must take place before people’s power is in existence — that is, under some form of bourgeois parliamentary rule.

Of course, it is possible for a capitalist government to nationalise industries, either to fool working people or to meet particular economic needs of the capitalists. But such nationalisation is not a step towards people’s power, which is why capitalist governments also find it easy to denationalise or privatise the same industries.

Earlier also, the document displays illusions about the meaning of nationalisations by capitalist governments:

“The economy must be brought under social ownership and control. The key sectors of the economy — the ‘commanding heights’ — should be publicly owned (whether federal, state or municipal). The privatisations of recent decades should be reversed and the public sector massively expanded.

“With the economic levers in our hands we could elaborate a conscious plan focused on meeting human needs ...”

But if industries are owned by federal, state or municipal governments, that doesn’t mean that the economic levers are in our hands. It means they are in the hands of the capitalist state. (This is why, in the past, the ALP could also call for nationalising the “commanding heights” of the economy.)

‘Electoral victory’

Under the subheading “How will we get there?” (to fundamental social change), the resolution declares:

“History teaches us that there are many possible scenarios for the victory of the people. The struggle will decide. But even if popular forces committed to fundamental change win an electoral victory, we will have to mobilise in the streets, workplaces, schools, campuses and neighbourhoods to defend any progressive moves made against the power of the corporate rich.”

The main thing that history teaches about elected governments committed to fundamental change is not merely that their progressive moves have to be defended. It is that the governments themselves have to be defended against violent overthrow by the military force of the still-existing capitalist state. This was a central point that Marx and Engels learned from the history of the Paris Commune: that the working class has to destroy the capitalist state and replace it with a state of a different type. The history of the 20th century teaches the same thing, unfortunately often in the negative — Spain in the 1930s, Chile in 1973.

There is not a word about this in “Towards a socialist Australia”. Rather, the paragraph immediately following the one just quoted assumes that defending the progressive moves of our elected parliamentarians in Canberra will have defeated capitalism and brought about socialism:

“If we have overcome capitalism, if the economy is socially owned and controlled, if we have a system of institutionalised popular power — then we have a framework for effectively dealing with the ecological and social problems of the past.”

Socialist propaganda of course should explain how socialist democracy will allow the full power of human intelligence to seek to solve the problems we face. But it should not suggest that this can come about simply because we elect a leftist government and then “defend any progressive moves” it decides on. Capitalist parliamentary democracy, even when it is reformed, is not part of the pathway to direct democracy, but a very deliberate diversion from it. It would be a great mistake if the Occupy movement were to decide that its demands could be met by electing enough good parliamentarians, but that is what the SA resolution tells them.

The resolution was submitted for the SA conference on behalf of the SA National Executive. The SA NE, with one exception, is composed entirely of former members of the Democratic Socialist Perspective (DSP, earlier the Democratic Socialist Party). Even three or four years ago, all of those ex-DSPers would have refused to vote for anything that even hinted at belief in a “parliamentary road to socialism”. What has happened?

Broad party

Here, some brief history is required. In 2003, the DSP decided to convert the Socialist Alliance, which until that point had been what its name suggests, an alliance of most of Australia’s many socialist groups, into a “broad” or “multi-tendency” socialist party. The other socialist organisations involved were opposed to this idea, and they all eventually left SA when the DSP persisted with it.

The DSP hoped and believed that “non-aligned” members of SA (those not members of other socialist groups) would be numerous and active enough to make SA forge ahead even without the other groups. This hope proved to be false. Trying to make it come true caused the DSP to waste a great deal of energy that could have been expended more usefully. Worse, it began to distort the political outlook of the DSP.

In an effort to make SA appear “broad” to potential members, the DSP began hiding the Marxist ideas that are not widely accepted in present society and which therefore appeared to be an obstacle to growing SA. The idea was that, working together with the “broad” socialists, DSP members would have many opportunities to discuss with and convince them of Marxism. The problem was that there weren’t enough of such potential Marxists, which made the DSP very cautious about scaring them off by bringing up too much Marxism too quickly.

It is very difficult to pretend to be something for a long time without at least partially becoming what you pretend. As time passed, DSP members began to forget or disagree with the Marxist ideas they had originally hoped to advance through SA. Two years ago, this degenerative process reached the point that a DSP congress voted to dissolve into SA.

At the time of the DSP’s liquidation, an open letter from the Revolutionary Socialist Party warned: “The DSP may think it is speaking to an audience of people who are not (yet) revolutionary socialists. The reality is that a non-revolutionary political climate is more and more speaking through the DSP.” (The RSP was formed in 2008 by expelled members of the DSP who had argued unsuccessfully for changing the orientation to SA.)

Based on more recent experience, one ex-DSPer in SA has now attempted to open a discussion about SA politics, writing that “the SA as broad party strategy lead[s] to a push towards liberalism”. After describing a number of specific instances of liberal politics displacing Marxism in SA’s practice, he explains it in this way:

“... if the Marxist revolutionaries within SA wish to keep SA together, the revolutionaries have to bend over backwards to accommodate those who do not (or do not yet) have revolutionary Marxist convictions … we end up placating those not yet revolutionary by not being too Marxist. So the positions adopted by SA as a whole are those that do not inflame liberal sensibilities, in order to keep such liberals within the framework of SA.”

He adds: “I think we probably imagined when SA began, that the Marxist revolutionaries would offer a lead to all others. The opposite of what was intended has been the result … Even if the Marxists comprised 95% of the membership of SA, and all other trends comprised 5%, the other variations of liberalism will hold sway, for without the liberals on side, the broad party is not broad. Thus, the most vague, the most imprecise, the most general and the most liberal, is the policy that wins out in the end.” (For the full article, see http://alliancevoices.blogspot.com/2011/12/who-are-we.html?utm_source=BP_recent.)

This seems a cogent explanation of how the SA draft resolution came to imply a parliamentary road to socialism, and of why none of the SA members who have contributed to the written discussion seem to have noticed this.

What is needed?

These problems with SA practice and the draft program suggest that a “broad” party is not the vehicle to help the 99% find their way to their goals. What is needed is a party with a Marxist understanding that getting from capitalism to socialism will necessarily involve a revolution to deprive the capitalists of state power and create a new state of the working people. This needs to be an understanding of the party as a whole, not just of some individuals within it. The manner in which a Marxist party works toward revolution of course changes with objective circumstances, but without that conscious collective goal, a party can’t get much past liberalism.