Steps Toward Unification of Australian Socialist Groups at Marxism 2013 Conference
I attended a public socialist educational conference in Melbourne, Australia, over the Easter weekend, organized by Socialist Alternative. The conference, called Marxism 2013, featured three full days of classes and special talks, Friday March 29 through Sunday. Interwoven with the educational conference was an underlying theme of unifying revolutionary socialist groups in the country.
These two aspects of the weekend were evident at a Thursday night rally preceding the conference itself, “Uniting the Left to Resist Austerity, War and Crisis.”
The rally aspect of the evening was expressed in greetings by Gerry Rivera of the Philippine Labor Party who is leading a major strike of airline workers in Manila; leading working class militant Bob Carnegie who is being prosecuted for leading a successful strike by Australian construction workers; and Brian Jones from the U.S. International Socialist Organization.
The second aspect was emphasized by Vashti Kenway of Socialist Alternative (who also was in charge of the organization of the conference), Kim Bullimore of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, and Peter Boyle of Socialist Alliance. When Kim Bullimore announced that the RSP had formally dissolved earlier that day and unified with Socialist Alternative, there was thunderous applause.
I’ll take up the educational conference first, and deal with the unity process below.
The Marxism 2013 Conference
My overall impression of the conference was quite positive. There were about 1,140 people who came to some sessions, and 715 who attended the whole weekend. The composition of the participants was overwhelmingly young, and appeared to be nearly evenly split between men and women. It should be kept in mind that the population of Australia is about 23 million.
Video of opening night panel featuring Gerry Rivera, Bob Carnegie, Brian Jones and more.
The conference was well organized by Socialist Alternative. It seemed to me that the whole membership had assignments. Some were in yellow T shirts to signify they were there to help the participants in all sorts of ways, from finding classrooms, toilets, food, registration to ironing out the glitches that are bound to occur in such a large gathering. Others had green T shirts – they were there to answer questions about Socialist Alternative, what it stands for, how it is organized, and how to join. The other Socialist Alternative members had assignments from giving classes to organizing cleanup.
The great majority of the participants were not in any organization. The broader participants also joined in to help make the event a seamless, well-oiled and disciplined but relaxed and enjoyable event, with plenty of time for socializing and informal discussion.
From the classes I attended, the young Socialist Alternative members who gave the classes or spoke from the floor in the discussion period are quite well read. There was a big bookstore, with all the classics, all kinds of history, books by figures like Noam Chomsky and others in the broader left, books and pamphlets of Socialist Alliance, Socialist Alternative and the RSP, down to books by Tony Cliff, James Cannon, Farrell Dobbs and even the two volumes of my political memoir of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party. Over the course of the weekend, the bookstore sold some $20,000 worth of literature.
Many other groups set up book tables in a big room devoted to that.
I’ll sum up: I felt like I was back 40 years ago at one of the SWP’s Oberlin conferences with their youth and enthusiasm. Mentally and spiritually, that is – I was still in my jet-lagged old man’s body.
There were two “big” talks, one by radical journalist John Pilger, and the other by former Black Panther Party member Billy X Jennings. Pilger, now in England, was originally from Australia. Jennings is currently the organizer of archives of the BBP, and set up a display of BBP material from these archives during the conference.
Billy X Jennings. (All photos from the Marxism conference Facebook page.)
For most sessions, there were six different classes to go to. Classes also overlapped the “big” talks. During the day, each day, there were five different time slots, and some special events in the evening. I counted 80 different classes, talks and panel discussions.
These were grouped around themes with multiple classes on each. One was Marxism for beginners, for people new to Marxism. Others were: organizing workers today; education under capitalism, including the role of teachers; The Russian Revolution, legacies and debates; Anarchism versus Marxism; LGBTI and women’s oppression; Revolutionary upsurges in Russia in 1905, Algeria 1954-62, and Italy in the 1920s; Marxist philosophy; Socialist parties of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries; Marxist economics; Australian radical history; and “issues and controversies.”
Among “issues and controversies” was a class led by Socialist Alternative leader Corey Oakley, on “What sort of organization do socialists need?” which touched on principles for left unity in Australia which I’ll discuss below. Another was led by two members of Socialist Alliance on “Socialists and electoral interventions.” The two were Sue Bolton and Sam Wainwright, both of whom are elected members of local town councils.
In addition to those I’ve already mentioned, there were international guests from Thailand, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Palestine, New Zealand and the Philippines. Farooq Tariq of the newly merged Awami Workers Party in Pakistan, was prevented by the Australian government from entering the country.
Roz Ward presents on Anarchism
The second was their firm but pedagogical arguments in favor of Marxism – and were quite overwhelming in refuting the anarchist position while maintaining a friendly tone. They were well read in the subject, much more so than I, and I learned a lot.
There are many varieties of anarchism, and some were represented at the conference. One individual just came to denounce the “authoritarianism” of all socialist organizations and the conference itself. But there was another group, who identified themselves as “communist anarchists.” These explained their agreement with much of Marxism, while disagreeing with “Leninism” in any form, in a friendly way, and expressing agreement with the speakers’ criticisms of other forms of anarchism. Some in the audience expressed agreement not exactly with classical anarchism, but with current theories of social transformation without taking state power. These and other forms of anarchism were well countered by the speakers.
One of the classes on Marxist philosophy was given by a 26 year old Socialist Alternative man, Daniel Lopez, on “Marxist dialectics from Marx to Lukacs.” Since I was staying with him, I attended his class, which was controversial with some comrades from the different tendencies, but I thought was quite good. He is very inquisitive, and he wanted to learn as much as he could from me about the “historic” American SWP. We talked late into the evening, in spite of my jet lag, lubricated by some wine, about this and many other topics, including, of course, philosophy and Lukacs. He was amazed to learn that one of the first recruits Peter Camejo and I made to the Boston Young Socialist Alliance in 1959 was a refugee from the Kremlin’s smashing of the 1956 Hungarian revolution. This fellow was in the army at the time of the revolution, and was elected to his unit’s soviet during the revolution – and had taken classes in Hungary with Lukacs at university!
Of course I can’t go over all the classes since I could only go to a few. Perhaps these examples will give a flavor.
I gave a class on U.S. politics today, and Brian Jones gave one on racism in the U.S.
There were other happenings. There were two art shows, one by Aboriginal artists, and another by an artist who does “hyper-realist” sculptures that he places on streets throughout the city, currently focusing on Australia’s role in the war against Afghanistan. A spoken word artist gave a reading of revolutionary early Soviet poet Mayakovsky. A member of Socialist Alternative, Katie Wood, gave a tour of an exhibit she has assembled at the University of Melbourne of an archive of left political history in Melbourne. There was a one-man show by Brian Jones of the play “Marx in Soho” by Howard Zinn, to wide acclaim. There was an evening session with famed Aboriginal activist Gary Foley, and a panel with Palestinian-American author Toufic Haddad.
Childcare at Marxism 2013
The final session was Sunday night, in a big cafeteria and bar at the conference venue, with some wrap up short speeches, radical songs from a group who could sing, and finally “The Internationale” by all, whether we could sing or not.
The next day, there was a meeting by the representatives of organizations from the Asian-Pacific region, including from the Philippines. In addition to Gerry Rivera, there was a woman representative from the southern Phillippines region where there has been a struggle for national rights, from a strong organization that is now a section of the Fourth International. The FI also has a yearly school in Manilla. Other countries represented were Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia, and New Zealand. I was there as an observer. It was agreed to build closer cooperation in the region.
Finally, there was a barbeque that night for all the international guests. I got into more discussions, with wine of course, about the American SWP, my book, my impression of the conference, and so forth.
The unity process
This was made more serious and urgent by the present organizational debacle of the British SWP, which was on everyone’s minds, and the subject of much informal discussion. It emphasized taking seriously the question, “What kind of organization do we want to build?”
There are three organizations involved: Socialist Alternative, Socialist Alliance and the Revolutionary Socialist Party.
Socialist Alternative grew out of the expulsion of a small group of people from the Australian ISO in 1995. The issues centred around an assessment of the political situation in Australia at the time and how socialists should respond in order to build their organisations. It was therefore in the tradition of the British Socialist Workers Party led by Tony Cliff. It grew mainly among students, and had an orientation to the campuses. In the 2000s, it became the largest socialist group on the campuses. It was primarily based in Melbourne, and then branched out to other cities.
Over time, members graduated and obtained jobs. Given the history of the organization, these were mainly in white collar unions, but a few got blue collar jobs. The fusion with the RSP resulted in the addition of a number of blue collar workers in the Maritime Union of Australia (longshore and seamen), Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union, and National Union of Workers (warehouse and call centers).
The level of union struggles in Australia is comparable to that in the U.S., although the union movement in terms of numbers is not as weak. The union work of Socialist Alternative members is correspondingly modest, but they are active in their unions and have made gains. Many have become “delegates,” something like “committeemen” or stewards in the U.S.
There is a national union coordinator, who works with the different fractions. About 40 percent of Socialist Alternative members are in unions.
The other two groups resulted from a split in the Democratic Socialist Party in the late 2000s. The DSP’s predecessor name was the Socialist Workers Party, which had been the section of the Fourth International until it left the FI in 1985. In contrast to Socialist Alternative, the DSP supported Trotsky’s view that the Soviet Union (and later similar states) was a “bureaucratically degenerated workers state” and should be defended against capitalist imperialism, while calling for the revolutionary overthrow of the Stalinist bureaucracy.
The split in the DSP concerned how to orient to an earlier attempt at regroupment, the Socialist Alliance, which began as an alliance (not fusion) between the DSP, ISO, and smaller groups in the early 2000s. The ISO and other groups left in 2005, but the Socialist Alliance continued as an evolving process, which I won’t go into. The orientation to building the Socialist Alliance as a broader socialist group than the DSP finally resulted in the majority of the DSP dissolving into the Socialist Alliance in 2010.
A minority of the DSP had come to the conclusion earlier that the Socialist Alliance project was at a dead end. This minority formed the Revolutionary Socialist Party after the DSP split over the question in 2008.
Representatives from all three groups said that they never would have predicted one year ago that they would all be speaking at a common conference such as Marxism 2013.
So these are the players in the current efforts at unity.
These efforts were sparked last September, when a former RSP member (and previously DSP member) and Venezuela solidarity activist Jorge Jorquera, joined Socialist Alternative.
Since Jorge did not come from the “state capitalist” tradition of Socialist Alternative, and given the scarce attention paid to the Venezuelan process by those who were in the Tony Cliff tradition internationally, this development appeared to represent new openness on the part of Socialist Alternative to forces from other traditions that came out of the Left Opposition.
Both Socialist Alliance and the Revolutionary Socialist Party took note, and opened discussions with Socialist Alternative in the next months.
The discussion with the RSP moved rapidly forward. The RSP had already been sounding out Socialist Alternative before Jorge Jorquera had joined. By December, the two sides had come to agreement on unity based on a common statement of principles and constitution. I’m attaching the statement of principles below. The reader can see that it encompasses what could be characterized as what all currents that came from the broader Trotskyist movement agree on. At the same time, no one is required to give up their specific views that go beyond the statement, and other differences.
Left-wing journalist John Pilger speaks at Marxism 2013.
In the months leading up to Marxism 2013, the members of the RSP in fact became members of the Socialist Alternative branches in their cities. This resulted in breaking down misconceptions and barriers.
On the Thursday before the conference began that evening, the RSP held its final formal meeting, which I attended. The members discussed their experiences working with the Socialist Alternative members the preceding months. One thing they all reported was the high level of activity of Socialist Alternative members, as well as their high political and theoretical level. RSP members were impressed by how much their new comrades read. This reinforced my own observations.
At this meeting, there was a unanimous vote to dissolve the RSP, and for its former members to officially apply to join Socialist Alternative as individuals. The RSP did not join as a tendency or faction or caucus, and would cease meeting separately.
At its December convention, Socialist Alternative voted to set aside five spots on their new national committee for RSP members, actually giving them over-representation. The RSP elected those five at their final meeting.
From their new constitution, other written documents and oral discussions, including a class given by Socialist Alternative leader Corey Oakley, “What sort of organization do socialists need?” the following is an outline of the organizational principles of the unified group:
- It seeks to build a cadre organization of dedicated and experienced members, and educates new recruits in this direction;
- It is an organization of activists in mass movements as well as in building Socialist Alternative itself;
- Related to that, the active membership participates in democratic discussion and decision making. The model of a passive membership following orders from a leadership is rejected.
- It is democratic centralist. However, in Oakley’s words in an article in the Socialist Alternative theoretical journal Marxist Left Review, “We do not hold – as some on the left do – that ‘democratic centralism’ dictates that after a decision has been taken minorities have no right to express their view. The right of minorities to dissent, publicly if they feel necessary, has been made explicit in our new Constitution ….”
(I would add that while the historic American SWP held this principle, it was honored more in the breach than in practice, and we should have done this regularly.)
- “For democratic debate to be real in a socialist organization there needs to be an atmosphere of honest open discussion, in which members feel free to air differences and thrash out political debate without fear of reprisals or stigma….As this fusion and the broader process of regroupment proceeds over the course of this year, we are determined to…create an organization that revolutionaries from different backgrounds can feel at home in and make their own.”
- Over time, differences from the past will be clarified, and possibly overcome. This was made clear to me concerning Venezuela, in a class given by Roberto Jorquera, a former member of the RSP, during the conference. He neither gave a rah-rah view that the workers and their allies have already won state power and are constructing socialism, nor the view that basically there is no revolutionary process occurring in Venezuela. Instead, he gave a realistic picture of a sharp class struggle occurring, with still capitalist control of much of the state apparatus and media on the one side, and mobilized masses on the other who have already made major advances in winning universal health care and education, reduction in poverty and other gains including imposing workers control in some areas of the economy, under Chavez’ leadership. This class struggle is playing out in all levels of society, including in Chavez’ own party, in the factories, in the elections, in capitalist sabotage in the economy and the state bureaucracy, etc. The outcome is not foreordained. Comrades present from all three organizations were in broad agreement with the reporter.
- The unified organization takes seriously the history of the socialist movement. Oakley quoted from a talk the US socialist James Cannon made in 1966 about the importance of historical consciousness in the socialist movement:
The second reason that I would give for the durability of this party of ours [the U.S. Socialist Workers Party] is the fact that we did not pretend to have a new revelation. We were not these “men from nowhere” whom you see running around the campuses and other places today saying, “We’ve got to start from scratch. Everything that happened in the past is out the window.” On the contrary, we solemnly based ourselves on the continuity of the revolutionary movement. On being expelled from the Communist Party, we did not become anti-communist. On the contrary, we said we are the true representatives of the best traditions of the Communist Party …Before that, some of us had about ten years of experience in the IWW and Socialist Party, and in various class struggle activities around the country. We said we were the heirs of the IWW and Socialist Party – all that was good and valid and revolutionary in them. We honor the Knights of Labor and the Haymarket martyrs. We’re not Johnny-come-latelys at all. We’re continuators.Oakley concludes, “this should not mean – as it has tended to in the past – that a party has to be constituted on the basis of total agreement about a particular historical narrative in which the true revolutionary path can be traced in detail from Marx and Engles through the twists and turns of the twentieth century up until today, with all who deviated from it condemned as renegades and betrayers. But it is not necessary to throw out the baby with the bathwater. The history of the Marxist movement is a vast reservoir of experience without which we would be immeasurably weakened. We want an organization that is committed to integrating the lessons of history into our project for today.“
- The unified Socialist Alternative “is not so grand as to presume that we are the ‘nucleus’ for a future mass party, which will be constructed by a combination of forces that exist today and other much more variegated that have not yet come onto the scene. But the fact is that the more we do today to unite and build the forces of revolutionary socialism, the better we will be able not only to intervene in the vital struggles of today, but out of those struggles contribute to the construction of a revolutionary working class movement that can tear apart the hateful system of greed and exploitation we live under, and start to build a new world.”
The whole of Oakley’s article can be found in the latest Marxist Left Review, available online here.
Attendees at the Marxism 2013 conference.
The process with Socialist Alliance has moved more slowly. Early this year the Socialist Alternative and Socialist Alliance agreed that the latter would become a sponsor of the Marxism 2013 conference, and would have speakers at it.
The two groups also agreed to build a common contingent in the upcoming May Day demonstrations, and to hold joint meetings in various cities on the theme of socialist unity in the next months.
Socialist Alternative has also endorsed and will participate in a public meeting called by Socialist Alliance on the question of Leninism, to be held in June. A featured speaker will be Paul LeBlanc of the U.S. ISO, who has written extensively on the subject.
Peter Boyle of Socialist Alliance
Following the conference, I was able to talk with Peter Boyle, a central leader of Socialist Alliance. He outlined areas of concern that his organization will be discussing with Socialist Alternative in the months ahead.
Socialist Alliance hopes to work out a common programmatic statement with Socialist Alternative that goes beyond the Statement of Principles. It was agreed that Socialist Alliance would prepare a first draft to initiate this discussion.
Boyle also indicated to me that he hoped this process would also have an important educational function in Socialist Alliance itself, in raising the programmatic level of Socialist Alliance members who never were in the DSP.
Boyle thought the main points to work through in the coming discussions are the different priorities and areas of work of the two organizations.
One of these is the environmental movement, which Socialist Alliance sees as more of a priority than Socialist Alternative has.
Another is socialist election campaigns, which Socialist Alliance emphasizes, while Socialist Alternative has not run such campaigns. There is no difference in principle about this. In my discussions, I found that Socialist Alternative comrades were not at all enthusiastic about running for small regional councils, as Socialist Alliance does. At the same time, Socialist Alternative members indicated they would vote for Socialist Alliance candidates. Socialist Alliance has proposed a joint election campaign with Socialist Alternative for Senator from Victoria province.
Another electoral issue is how to relate to candidates of the Green Party (which is more of an establishment party in Australia than in the United States).
An issue where there are political differences is women’s liberation. These also exist within Socialist Alternative. I found it interesting that the article by U.S. ISO leader Sharon Smith (which I agree with) correcting some past positions of the ISO on women’s liberation was controversial with some members of Socialist Alternative. I think this can be clarified over time through discussion and should not be held up as a barrier to unification.
If agreement can be reached on how to deal with these questions and Socialist Alliance joins the unity process, it would bring into a fused organization important assets and cadres. One of these is Green Left Weekly. Peter Boyle explained that having a weekly paper in any fused organization would be a priority for them.
I have written articles for both Direct Action, which was the newspaper of the RSP, now merged into Socialist Alternative, and for GLW.
By agreement with both, my weekly column “Letter from the U.S.” will now be sent to both GLW and Socialist Alternative.
Socialist Alternative’s 2012 National Conference voted to adopt a new Statement of Principles. The Principles will provide the foundation for the organization’s broader political positions and analyses, and will guide the organization’s political practice.
STATEMENT OF GENERAL PRINCIPLES
1. Socialist Alternative is a revolutionary Marxist organization. We stand for the overthrow of capitalism and the construction of a world socialist system.
2. By socialism we mean a system in which society is democratically controlled by the working class and the productive resources of society are channeled to abolishing class divisions. Only socialism can rid the world of poverty and inequality, stop imperialist wars, end oppression and exploitation, save the environment from destruction and provide the conditions for the full realization of human creative potential. A system under the democratic control of the working class is the only basis for establishing a classless, prosperous, sustainable society based on the principle “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”
3. Stalinism is not socialism. We agree with Trotsky’s characterization of Stalin as the “gravedigger” of the Russian Revolution. The political character of the regime established by the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia most closely resembled that placed in power in capitalist countries by victorious fascist movements – an atomized population ruled over by a ruthless bureaucratic dictatorship masquerading behind social demagogy. We stand in the tradition of the revolutionaries who resisted Stalinism, and we fight today to reclaim the democratic, revolutionary politics of Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky and others from Stalinist distortion.
4. Socialism cannot be won by reform of the current system or by taking over the existing state. Only the revolutionary overthrow of the existing order and the smashing of the capitalist state apparatus can defeat the capitalist class and permanently end its rule. A successful revolution will involve workers taking control of their workplaces, dismantling existing state institutions (parliaments, courts, the armed forces and police) and replacing them with an entirely new state based on genuinely democratic control by the working class.
5. The emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself. Socialism cannot come about by the actions of a minority. The struggle for socialism is the struggle of the great mass of workers to control their lives and their society, what Marx called “a movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority”.
6. For workers to be won to the need for revolution, and for the working class to be cohered organizationally and politically into a force capable of defeating the centralized might of the capitalist state, a revolutionary party is necessary. Such an organization has to cohere in its ranks the decisive elements among the most class-conscious and militant workers. Laying the basis for such a party is the key strategic task for socialists in Australia today.
7. It is not enough for a revolutionary party to organize the vanguard of the class. For capitalism to be overthrown, the majority of the working class must be won to revolutionary action and the socialist cause. It is not enough to simply denounce the non-revolutionary organizations and political currents in the workers’ movement. Revolutionaries have to engage reformist organizations via the method of the united front in order to test the possibility for united action in practice and demonstrate to all workers in a non-sectarian way the superiority of revolutionary ideas and practice. We support all demands and movements that tend to improve the position and self confidence of workers and of other oppressed sections of the population.
8. Socialists support trade unions as the basic defensive organizations of the working class. We stand for democratic, militant, class struggle unionism and reject class collaborationism. We also stand for political trade unionism – the union movement should champion every struggle against injustice.
9. Capitalist exploitation of the working class and the natural world has created a situation where the profit system threatens the habitability of the planet. We oppose attempts to halt climate change and environmental destruction through measures that place the burden on working class people and the poor. We instead demand fundamental social and political change that directly challenges the interests of the ruling class. The environmental crisis can only be solved under socialism, where the interests of people and the planet are not counterposed.
10. Socialists are internationalists. We reject Australian patriotism and nationalism and fight for international working class solidarity. The struggle against capitalism is an international struggle: socialism cannot be built in a single country.
11. The imperialist phase of capitalism has ushered in an era of military conflict that has no precedent in human history. The core element of imperialism is the conflict between imperial powers, or blocks of capital, which attempt by military, diplomatic and commercial means to divide and redivide the world in their own interests. In the conflicts between imperial powers (open or by proxy), revolutionaries do not take sides, least of all with our own ruling classes. Nor do we call for the resolution of inter-imperialist conflict by the “peaceful” methods of international diplomacy. Instead we fight for international working class solidarity and unity, and embrace Lenin’s revolutionary call to “turn the imperialist war between nations into a civil war between classes”. In the case of wars waged or diplomatic pressure exerted by military threat by the imperial powers against colonies and non-imperialist nations, we oppose the imperial power and defend the right of national self-determination.
12. Australia is an imperialist power in its own right. Through its own economic and military strength, and in alliance with US imperialism, Australian capitalism seeks to politically and militarily dominate its region and project power more broadly. This gives revolutionaries in Australia a special obligation to stand in solidarity with struggles of workers and the oppressed in our region against Australian imperialist intervention and control.
13. We recognize Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the first people of Australia. We acknowledge that sovereignty was never ceded and condemn the crimes of genocide and dispossession committed by European colonists and the Australian state. We support the struggle for land rights, sovereignty and economic and social justice for Indigenous people.
14. We oppose all immigration controls and support open borders. We fight to free all refugees from detention and for the right of asylum seekers to reach Australia. We oppose racism towards migrants. In particular we reject racism towards Muslims, whose right to religious and political freedom is routinely attacked on the spurious grounds of “fighting terrorism”.
15. We oppose all oppression on the basis of sex, gender or sexuality. We oppose all forms of discrimination against women and all forms of social inequality between men and women. The struggle for freedom from exploitation and freedom from all forms of oppression includes the liberation of lesbians, gay men, bisexual, transgender and intersex people. We fight for an end to all legal and social discrimination against LGBTI people and all forms of sexist discrimination. We support full reproductive freedom for all women.
16. All these forms of oppression, and others like the oppression of the young, the disabled and the elderly, are used to divide the working class and to spare capital the expense of providing for the needs of all members of society. Combating them is an essential part of building a united working class struggle that can win a socialist society. Only a socialist revolution can bring about the genuine liberation of the oppressed and the ability of every human being to realize their full potential.