What can be the basis of unity on the left?


The process of merger between Socialist Alternative and the Revolutionary Socialist Party has attracted no little interest on the Australian left. A number of activists around both organisations have joined or are considering joining in order to be part of the merged revolutionary organisation.

On the other hand, on the internet discussion list sponsored by Green Left Weekly newspaper, many or most of the original comments from members of the Socialist Alliance were disbelieving and/or disparaging. Then, after an initial flurry, Socialist Alliance members active on the list almost simultaneously lost interest in the topic.

This sequence was unfortunate, because it could have left the impression that Socialist Alliance is sceptical about, or even opposed to, unity among socialist organisations. We now know that such an impression would have been false, because Peter Boyle, the national secretary of the Socialist Alliance, has written an article in Green Left Weekly declaring that “left unity is on the agenda”.

Boyle does not regard Socialist Alternative-RSP unity as very important, terming it a “minor regroupment”, and listing it after apparently more important events such as “Socialist Alliance and the CPA [Communist Party of Australia] work[ing] together in a Housing Action election ticket in the Sydney City Council elections earlier this year”. Nevertheless, it is a real side benefit of the unity process if it is prompting a consideration within Socialist Alliance of the aims and basis of left unity.

Which left?

Peter Boyle’s article, titled “What politics to unite Australia’s left?”, is true to its title, dealing throughout with unity of “the left” pure and simple. But while it names some of the organisations it would like to include in this unity, it never states clearly what this “left” consists of. Among the organisations that everyone would consider part of “the left”, there are differences about where “the left” ends and “the centre” begins. Does “the left” that should be united include the left faction of the ALP? Does it include all, some or none of the Greens? This is obviously important because it would determine the limits on the politics of the unity organisation.

Much of Boyle’s article is presented as a response to an editorial in Socialist Alternative magazine commenting on the Socialist Alternative-RSP unity process and its implications. But the Socialist Alternative editorial passages that Boyle quotes are not about unity of “the left” generally; they are about unity of “the revolutionary socialist left”. Yet Boyle goes on throughout his article talking only about uniting “the left” in general, as though he were discussing the same subject.

In fact, Boyle specifically excludes unity on the basis of revolutionary politics: “... 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”.

In fact, the left in Australia doesn’t have much trouble engaging in united struggles against the ills of capitalism. Where a particular struggle involves only one or two of the left organisations, this is usually because even the largest left groups are still small and have too few forces to be involved in everything – not because they oppose united action. But unity in action doesn’t make the distinction between revolutionary and non-revolutionary politics a “false argument”. Just the opposite.

Struggles against the ills of capitalism, if they reach any size, usually involve three types of political outlook. There are revolutionaries, who engage in struggles in order to improve the conditions in which the working class can eventually fight to overthrow capitalism, and to win others in the struggle to an understanding of the need for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and its state. Then there are those, “liberals” or “reformists”, who consider the struggles against particular ills as sufficient: if we just defeat enough capitalist ills, we’ll arrive at a better world, whether it’s called “capitalism” or “socialism”. The third trend basically takes a position on the left wing of the second, talking a great deal about socialism, but avoiding clearly explaining to those it influences what is necessary to get to socialism, implicitly or explicitly endorsing false ideas of the gradual winning of power by the working class within the capitalist state.

To say that the differences between the first of these outlooks and the latter two are a “false argument” means that a revolutionary politics is unnecessary; it is to confine “the left” within a perspective of reformism.

What path to socialism?

At its January 2012 conference, the Socialist Alliance adopted as a draft a programmatic document titled Towards a Socialist Australia. This is due to be voted on by the Socialist Alliance’s next conference in January. There is currently some internal discussion of several proposed amendments, and a proposal from one leader to give the document an ongoing “draft” status.

In form, Towards a Socialist Australia is an attempt to explain the need for socialism in a popular way. That is always a worthwhile effort, although some might argue that it is better done through a series of newspaper or magazine articles, since the first function of a program is to codify the basic understanding of the members of an organisation. However that may be, are the ideas of Towards a Socialist Australia useful as a guide for people interested in replacing capitalism with socialism?

Unfortunately, they are not. The document is firmly within the tendency that evades or misrepresents the answer to the question of how capitalism can be overthrown.

Since Lenin published his pamphlet The State and Revolution, rescuing Marx and Engels’ conclusions based on the experience of the Paris Commune, it has been accepted by Marxists that the working class cannot simply take control of the capitalist state and use it to expropriate the capitalists and begin constructing a socialist society. The capitalist state has to be destroyed and replaced by a state based on the organisations of the working people.

As Lenin pointed out, Marx and Engels considered this lesson so important that they introduced it as a “correction” to the 1872 edition of the Communist Manifesto: “... One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes’...”

The lesson was proved positively by the Russian Revolution, which replaced bourgeois parliamentary government with a state based on soviets – organisations of the workers, peasants and soldiers. It has been proved negatively by socialists who tried to use the capitalist state and ended up being overthrown by elements of that state (Guatemala 1954, Chile 1973, among others).


But Marx, Engels, Lenin and historical experience are ignored by the authors of Towards a Socialist Australia. While the document is often vague, it clearly envisions the expropriation of capital by the present Australian state. First, without suggesting any change in the character of the state, it calls for expansion of state ownership:

“Our economy must be socially owned and controlled. Key sectors of the economy should be publicly owned (whether federal, state or municipal). The privatisations of recent decades should be reversed and the public sector massively expanded.”

Ownership of parts of the economy by a capitalist state is not socialism. While capitalists in the present era of economic decline have mostly favoured privatisation of state enterprises, they have lived comfortably in the past with numerous state-owned enterprises and can do so again. Moreover, nationalisation by the parliament of a capitalist state can always be reversed by a subsequent parliament. But Towards a Socialist Australia reads as though nationalisations by the current Australian state are the beginning of socialism. It immediately follows the above quote with:

“With the economic levers in the peoples’ hands, society could make a conscious plan focused on meeting human needs.”

Nationalisation by a capitalist state does not put an enterprise into “the people’s hands”. If parliament votes to renationalise the Commonwealth Bank, it will continue to serve capitalist interests, not the interests of “the people”. Yet Towards a Socialist Australia portrays a scenario in which the Australian capitalist state expropriates the capitalists, and the people then go on to use their supposed power over the economy to create a socialist democracy. Here is the beginning to the document’s section headed “For real democracy, for people’s power!”:

“We need a system of popular democracy that empowers the majority of Australian people.

“A first step is social ownership of the economy on which we all depend ...”

That puts it backwards. It will never happen that the capitalist parliament legislates social ownership, and then it becomes possible to institute popular democracy. But Towards a Socialist Australia blithely continues, prescribing how “people’s power” will come about through reforms of the current Australian parliament:

“Parliament requires fundamental change. MPs should receive a worker’s average wage. They should be subject to recall through a simple process if their electors are dissatisfied. The voting age should be lowered to 16 years.”

Reforms such as these would make parliament less undemocratic. They are measures that a workers state would presumably implement for its governing bodies. But applied to the Australian parliament – and Towards a Socialist Australia has not mentioned any other form of government – they are not “people’s power” or even a serious step towards it.

To recap, the scenario outlined in the Socialist Alliance’s draft program goes like this: First, parliament (presumably with a majority of Socialist Alliance MPs) reverses recent privatisations and expands the public sector, making the economy “socially owned and controlled”. Using the “economic levers” (“commanding heights”?) that are now in their hands, the people create a planned economy. After this “first step”, reforms are introduced to the functioning of parliament, which thereby becomes the instrument of “people’s power” and can presumably enact any other changes that are needed; we are on the road to Utopia. What the military, police and state bureaucracy are doing during this time is not mentioned.

However, the authors of Towards a Socialist Australia seem to have had some lingering doubts about this scenario: after presenting their plan for the transition to socialism, they suddenly present the question: “How will fundamental social change come about?” While it is encouraging that they recognise that they may not have answered the question yet, their answer here is not much of an improvement:

“There is no map or blueprint, but long experience shows that we will get nothing unless we fight for it. The involvement of the majority of people will ensure that real change can be achieved and defended.”

And that’s it. That’s the sum total of the lessons that Towards a Socialist Australia draws from two centuries of working-class struggle. If you want socialism, you have to fight for it. Leaving aside the red herring of maps or blueprints, is there anything else the workers movement has learned about how to fight for fundamental social change? That question is not answered – it is not even asked – in Towards a Socialist Australia. Instead, it is assumed that the road to fundamental social change runs through the present capitalist parliament, and that the primary role of working people consists of defending “their” parliamentarians’ legislation. The document’s section on “How will we get there?” concludes:

“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.”

Repeating recent history

Peter Boyle’s article recommends that efforts towards unity today take as a model what he considers was the procedure in the origin of the Socialist Alliance. I disagree with him about some of what that procedure actually consisted of, but this is not the place to debate that history. What matters here is the procedure that Boyle would have the left use today:

“Socialist Alliance’s politics began essentially with initial points of agreement on a platform of struggle against the capitalist neoliberal attacks between various small revolutionary socialist groups that worked together to form it in 2001. There was agreement to set aside the relatively minor theoretical differences various tendencies in the left had with each other, work with what we agreed on and then, over time and on the basis of new collective experience in united action, seek to develop greater political agreement.”

It is true that the members of the Socialist Alliance were originally all revolutionary socialist groups: none of them fudged the question of the need to overthrow the bourgeois state. In that context, most of their theoretical differences were indeed “relatively minor”. But the “greater political agreement” Boyle refers to didn’t develop.

The main reason for this was that the Democratic Socialist Party (later Democratic Socialist Perspective) was looking to make the Socialist Alliance something different from a collaboration between revolutionaries. The DSP was attempting to turn the Socialist Alliance into a “broad left” party – one that advocated socialism without having a party position on how that could be achieved – and it joined up as many “independents” as it could on that basis. The other participating groups weren’t in favour of such concessions to reformism and therefore left the Socialist Alliance as the DSP succeeded in imposing its perspectives.

A decade later, Peter Boyle recommends that the left more or less repeat that experience, but this time beginning from a non-revolutionary outlook. The contradictions between Marxism and the Socialist Alliance draft program can be pushed to one side as a “false argument” so that a united left can fight against the ills of capitalism.

In the worldwide history of left regroupments, fusions and splits, unity is generally based on programmatic and strategic agreement, with the understanding that disagreements about tactics within an organisation are normal and usually temporary. In order to preserve the Socialist Alliance draft program’s reformist perspectives, Boyle advocates reversing this usual procedure: we should ignore programmatic (“minor theoretical”) differences but demand agreement on tactical questions:

“ … there have been some differences in approach to the environment, women’s rights and trade union movements, and about taking part in elections.

“There are also differences about what tactical orientation the socialist movement should take towards the Greens and the Labor party. Unlike the longer-standing theoretical differences that have divided the left, these are issues that will immediately impact upon the left’s role in the actual political struggle today. These are differences that need to be discussed and not put aside to be sorted out later.”

So, in Peter Boyle’s form of left unity, we can be agnostic or even optimistic about the ability of the capitalist state to legislate us into socialism, but you’d better agree on the tactical approach to the ALP and the Greens, or it’s all off. Could there be a clearer indication that, for Peter Boyle, “actual political struggle today” means “intervening in elections”, not “winning workers to socialism”?

What politics to unite Australia’s left? Muddled ones won’t do it.

Direct Action, December 14, 2012

Left Unity