A response to "What politics to unite Australia’s left?"

By Mick Armstrong

The current discussion about unity on the left in Australia is an important one. It opens up the possibility of the socialist left making significant gains and being reforged on a new basis that transcends some of the historic differences that have divided the revolutionary left for decades.

The position that Socialist Alternative advocates in this discussion is quite straight forward. We are for unity around a clear cut revolutionary program – a socialist program for Australia today. Such a revolutionary program would not rehash all the theoretical disputes of the past. It would not demand that the organisations involved in the unity process disown their heritage or political traditions.

But it would be an unambiguously Marxist program that stood for workers power and the overthrow of capitalism. It would be a program for a fighting party of committed activists that took up the immediate fight today against the bosses and their governments and intervened in those struggles to win workers and students to understanding the need to totally transform society.

In an article “What politics to unite Australia’s left?” published on the Socialist Alliance website on 8 December, Socialist Alliance leader Peter Boyle in his comments on our editorial “A new kind of left unity” does not explicitly spell out whether he and the Socialist Alliance agree that unity should be on the basis of a revolutionary program.

On the one hand he states that all the left groups “agree that such a political and social revolution is necessary”. If that is the case then why shouldn’t we be up front about it and have it in our program?

On the other hand Peter Boyle writes:

However, if we are going to get anywhere with left unity today we are going to have to find a way to get beyond a false argument within the left about who is really “revolutionary” and who is not, and start discussing, in a constructive way, how best a united left can engage in the struggles against the ills of capitalism.

A united left will make it easier to win more people to socialist politics and it will inspire more militant leaderships to develop in the trade unions and other social movements if we can combine our efforts and resources in a way that increases our combined impact.

So the real question we should be debating is what politics a united left organisation in Australia should have today.

But Socialist Alternative’s argument for unity on a clear cut revolutionary basis is not about grandstanding. It is not some attempt to pose ourselves as “more revolutionary than thou” and cast other left groups into some socialist hell. No, it is a practical necessity if we are to go forward.

How can we have a sensible discussion of “what politics a united left organisation in Australia should have today?” without raising the question of unity around a revolutionary Marxist program?

Revolutionary Marxism is not something that only becomes relevant on the day the barricades go up. Marxism and a revolutionary program are a guide for action in every struggle we intervene in today. Precisely because we are revolutionaries we don’t accept shoddy compromises, we don’t bow down to the powers-that-be, we don’t play by their rules, we don’t go along with the ALP and the Greens, and we attempt to push every struggle as far as possible in an anti-capitalist direction.

And it is not just in our interventions in struggles, both large and small, that clear revolutionary politics are relevant. Most of what socialists do is talk to people, discuss, argue and debate. We seek to win workers and students to a broader understanding of the class nature of society, who is to blame for the horrors of the world, why the working class is the only force with the power to fundamentally transform society, why people need to get organised if they want to change the world and so on.

As well, to build an organisation that can intervene and make convincing arguments we need to train a strong cadre of activists around clear cut Marxist politics.

The issue of agreement on the need for unity around a revolutionary program is much more important than the narrower tactical differences that Peter Boyle spends a considerable amount of time going over in his article.

Take for example the issue of which political campaigns socialist groups get involved in today. This is hardly some question of principle or anything like it. Given the small size of all the socialist groups in Australia there is no way that any of them could be seriously involved in every progressive campaign.

Socialist groups inevitably have to prioritise where they use their resources. Not to do so would simply destroy their organisations. Even in a larger united revolutionary organisation we would still have to democratically decide on priorities for intervention. Surely these are the sorts of questions that can be discussed out in a united organisation and don’t have to be settled in advance or raised as a significant obstacle to unity.

Socialist Alternative has played a leading role in a whole series of trade union, student and other campaigns that other socialist groups haven’t seriously intervened in. That is not necessarily a mark against them and we definitely don’t rule out unity with them because they don’t have the same priorities in trade union or campaign work as we do.

Peter Boyle states that “Socialist Alliance is the only group actively involved in the environment movement.” To raise this as an important difference that impacts on the possibility of socialist unity is in our view seriously mistaken. It would effectively prevent Socialist Alliance uniting with any other socialist group.

Involvement in the environment movement is not a criterion for deciding whether an organisation is socialist or revolutionary or whether it is possible to unite with them. After all, the decidedly unrevolutionary Greens are involved in the environment movement and it would be absurd to unite with them.

Much more important than which campaigns you intervene in is how you intervene. What politics do you base your intervention on?

If, like the Greens and the ALP, your political world view is one that accepts capitalism and the rules of the current system, then inevitably in any campaign you will be prone to accepting shoddy compromises rather than pushing the struggle to challenge the system. You will be more interested in getting elected to parliament than building a strong, self-confident working class movement.

It is only on the basis of clear Marxist politics, based around a revolutionary program, that socialists can be in a position to effectively intervene to make the most of campaigns, both in terms of winning immediate reforms for workers and the oppressed and in terms of mounting the greatest possible challenge to the system as a whole and in winning as many as possible of those active in the campaign to a socialist world view.

Seeing whether we agree on this political approach is much more important than the specifics of which campaigns socialists currently prioritise.

Another issue that Peter Boyle raises is participation in election campaigns. Socialist Alternative is not opposed in principle to participation in election campaigns and we did participate in the election campaign of Steve Jolly from the Socialist Party in the last Victorian state elections.

However, given the small size of the socialist left in Australia, we don’t believe that standing candidates in elections should be a priority for socialists today. We believe that intervening in the trade union movement, on the campuses and in activist campaigns is a much higher priority than electoral activity.

And again involvement in election campaigns is hardly proof of your socialist credentials. Just look at the ALP and the Greens.

No, the starting point for discussions about unity is do we agree on the fundamentals. Are we for organising to get rid of capitalism? Are all our day to day interventions in struggles and campaigns and in political debates aimed at building a movement that can ultimately overthrow the existing order and establish a democratically planned socialist society? Are we for having a program that reflects this orientation?

If we can agree on these core issues then we can lay the basis for building a broader united revolutionary organisation which on the basis of democratic, comradely debate and collective experience can sort out its disagreements on all sorts of tactical issues in a fruitful manner.

[This article first appeared on the Socialist Alternative website.]