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John Passant

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Which way forward for the Left?

As readers may know En Passant and Left Focus have been keen to get a debate going about the Left and the way forward.  Posts on both sites over the coming weeks and months will pursue that debate and we urge people who want to contribute to submit articles and comments. 

Th idea got some further momentum with a reader on GrodsCorp asking them why they didn’t put forward a program for the Left.  I put my two bobs’ worth in and Tristan also made a contribution.  These are set out below. (But be warned – GrodsCorp is a fairly juvenile site and the discussion there has degenerated into sexism.)

Bill and I both believe in the revolutionary program – the creation of a revolutionary working class party with a view ultimately to working class revolution. 

We are far from having a revolutionary party in Australia, let alone being in a revolutionary situation.  Our goal is long term.

Others will have different views – for example amalgamations of left-wing groups in an electoral alliance (like Socialist Alliance in its initial stages).  Still others might view the Greens with a  socially progressive approach as the way forward for the left.

Many on the the Socialist Left believe that the ALP, if it were infused with the best elements of the left currently outside the party, would force Labor into a left tack. 

There will be  variations on these themes.  But it is no only structural issues that will be important.

What demands, programs and policies should the Left adopt?  And for what goal?  What should our responses be to the major issues of the day – the economic crisis, unemployment, wages, inequality, racism, oppression, war and so forth.

The situation in each country will  vary.  As the Great Recession seemingly calms, (or so all those reliable economists now tell us), as fascism possibly begins its march in Europe, as general strikes in Europe and other countries shake society, as unemployment increases,  as the mainstream left in France and the UK collapses, and as we here in Australia avoid recession to date, we welcome contributions from all progressive forces in any country on the way forward for the Left.

To get things moving we have reproduced some comments from GrodsCorp on the Great Left debate there.  Both Bill and I and Tristan will make more substantial contributions in the next few days. 

Bill and Leonie


From John:

Like Bertus my radicalisation was the Vietnam war. I was working in Canberra when Kerr sacked Whitlam (on my birthday!) and went to Parliament House that afternoon.

I wasn’t really able to form clearer political ideas until I began ‘real’ full time work and came across socialist ideas in my union.

Unlike Bertus I don’t think of the ALP or other similar parties workign within parliamentary framework as particularly left groups. I see them more expressions of the trade union bureaucracy and its unique position in society as the retailer of workers’ labour power to the bosses.

Tristan Ewins from the Victorian Socialist left and I have been trying to get this very debate going on our own blogs and though cross postings. Tristan’s bog is Left Focus and mine is En Passant.  My blog has a number of critiques of labourism.

I am working this very moment on an article on John Faulkner from the Socialist Left taking on the Defence Ministry where I think some of the fault lines between reformers and revolutionaries might be displayed.

This is what Tristan wrote:

The term ‘Left’ is by nature relative. Sometimes it is associated with political liberalism – sometimes with economic democracy and equality. And usually a mix of both. But still the term is relative…

Until Hawke and Keating decimated the public sector, the ‘mixed economy’ was mainstream.. It comprised the political and economic ‘centre’ – even under Menzies.

These days I personally am trying to speak in favour of a “democratic mixed economy”… In relative terms this may seem radical… But with the long historical view: it is an ethical and just compromise. My aim is to shift the relative political and economic scale- so this agenda is again mainstream.

Why compromise, though? Unfortunately, even in social democratic Sweden, wage earner funds were defeated when capitalists mobilised their full resources against them… There was a 20% cap put on wage earner funds in the Swedish stock market – and later these were dissolved to fund technological R&D…

But let’s assume that the labour movement in Australia stabilises – and new possibilities for mobilisation arise with better technology. (esp: the internet) You still have the problem of maintaining foreign investment and trade… And you probably have interests entrenched in the state apparatus who would resist any challenge on the economic front…

Even assuming a resurgence in mobilisation, therefore, we are well advised to avoid provoking a ‘final confrontation’. Without friends in the state apparatus we know how this would probably end… (unless civic mobilisation reached ‘critical mass’ – which let’s face it didn’t stop the war in Iraq even with over 100,000 on the streets of Melbourne… 🙁

Ultimately, to win strategic victories we need strategic compromises – as part of a long term strategy…

On this understanding, securing a 20% share in the Australian stock exchange for wage earner funds – would be a VERY significant victory… And so would tax concessions and financial support for co-operative enterprise… And so would strategic re-nationalisation: eg – in communications, airports, utilities… And so would a ‘media diversification fund’ – that promoted participatory media across the ideological scale…

If such an agenda was implemented under Rudd Labor some time over the course of the next 5-10 years – it would be a massive victory.

Other options over the long term could include public investment in natural resources and steel… Democratic ownership should ideally expand as far as it can without negating those aspects of competition that spur price signals, innovation etc… (ie: the productive and dynamic elements of the market economy…)

And this is assuming arrangements with sections of the capitalist class… So long as interests secure power through a combination of state control and wealth (reinforcing each other) – these interests will fight to the end – unless well-mobilised social movements force a compromise…

This isn’t to say there shouldn’t be class struggle… It is a reluctant liberal corporatism that compromises only because it has to… And into the future, further shifts may be possible also.

The political horizon is always shifting… We need to think and plan both short term and long term… At this stage perhaps on legitimate strategic move would be for unions to shift their support towards the Greens…

Further on there are a number of options.. Maybe a new mainstream party of the Left should be formed – to fill the vacant terrain left by Labor…To mobilise those socialists and social democrats who left the ALP in disillusionment – who would rush at the opportunity were there to form a mainstream party in the traditions of the Left…

Imagine of GetUp! – with over 300,000 members – ran a political campaign to get progressive citizens and activists into political parties … Just imagine if 10,000 joined a new Left party; and say many more thousands went to the Greens and the ALP… Consider the pressure ‘from below’ for reform of Australia’s party-political system…

Hopefully this could form the basis of an electoral and cultural bloc: one which would exert pressure on the ALP from the Left – but also shift the entire political spectrum relatively towards the Left also.

Importantly: when thinking strategically we need to think of what kind of outcomes we’re fighting for – and exactly how we think we’re going to get there… We need forums across the entire broad left to spur co-operation and co-ordination in our shared aims and interests… I hope this contribution will make a difference (even a small one) in that process.



My further comment was:


I think we could transfer the debate to your blog and mine. I think the points you raise are worth discussion. I’d like to respond with some slightly left field comments.

I think a left wing capitalist Government could take immediate steps to benefit workign people. There would be a raft of pro-union legislation, a 30 hour week without loss of pay, a massive increase in real wages, and so one economically.

But this would challenge the supremacy of capital and the spectre of Allende in 1973 looms large. For that reason other measures would include splitting the army to ensure the regular troops crossed over to the new Government. And of course then there’d be a whole range of social initiatives – ending defence spending, using the $20 bn for socially useful projects, nationalising the major sectors of the economy under workers’ control, recognising aboriginal sovereignty, declaring a republic, addressing climate change through real targets, and green jobs etc etc.

Such a government could only come about through mass struggle from below. But because the project occurs within the capitalist framework and its state and is top down, it is fraught with the difficulties Allende faced and then died for.

An alternative would be the working class itself creating its own organs of rule and transferring power to them to organise production to satisfy human need on a democratic basis (ie revolution).

I suggest we set up a reform versus revolution discussion on our two websites to continue this debate.



Comment from tristan
Time June 9, 2009 at 9:46 pm

Following on from John’s quote of my contribution at Grods:

I want readers to realise something about the compromise I propose and the substance of my beliefs in the last analysis… Some may not be able to find in themselves the disposition to compromise with wealth – But nevertheless, it is a scenario we need to be prepared for… Further: just because we have to make compromises – doesn’t have to mean we like it – or embrace it as ideal… Take the following quote – also from GrodsCorp:

BEGIN QUOTE: re: any ‘collapse of capitalism’… I agree with John – social collapse would probably lead to further brutalisation… And fascism would be a more likely consequence – rather than the kind of liberal democratic socialism I believe in.

Liberal consensus gives us some room to move… Participatory and democratic media are also important. In the future, possibilities will arise through revolutionised communications technology But even despite this – the power of concentrated wealth is appalling.

What bothers me, though, is that some people internalise the ‘wisdom’ that radical reform will lead to disaster – as a consequence of retaliation by wealth – and the servants of wealth in various national governments) This should appal every liberal and democratic bone in our bodies!!! END QUOTE

The point, here, is that a Swedish style social democratic corporatist compromise is not my “perfect ideal” – even though it is *much* better than what we currently confront.

To build an alternative based on the Swedish welfare state would comprise a victory of epic proportions!!! But the struggle for justice is a long and difficult task. It is a task through which we must confront ingrained elements of conservatism deep within the working class itself. And aside from that we face a cultural sphere deeply influenced by Ideology…

Outwardly there is liberty… But with the domination of the cultural sphere by wealth – as Chomsky says – there is a manufacturing [of] consent… People become complicit and passive in the face of their own oppression…

The point here is that we face a long “war of position” – a cultural war for the hearts and minds of the working class; of all oppressed groups; and of all those moved to stand for justice…

Maybe more of this later when I formally respond to John and Leonie…

In this struggle, though, there are ‘peaks’ and ‘troughs’… And even were a majority of workers and citizens to realise the case for change: even then progressive forces may not be in a position to implement a socialist program… We would deal not only with the resistance of the local bourgeoisie – but of world capitalism… Such isolation can swiftly degenerate into Stalinism – and is not preferable…

Also of note: It should not be underestimated – the dimensions of the task of building a constituency for socialism… Most are (understandably) deeply immersed in the present – in everyday to day issues: mortgages, groceries, working hours and wages – dominate peoples’ consciousness… To challenge the “Common sense” of capitalism requires a more long-term cultural struggle – which I will consider in my formal response…

Anyway – this is a convoluted way of putting it – but the struggle we are talking about might be such as to span decades… In the meantime it is reasonable to suppose outbursts of struggle will be met with strategic compromise… The point is to be strong enough for such compromise to be agreed to on as favourable terms as possible.

Restoring the ‘mixed economy’ is a good place to start… And over the course of the years we ought also fight for democratisation – through co-operative enterprise, public infrastructure, Government Business Enterprise, collective capital formation and the like…

Importantly: the so-called ‘final objective’ is not the ‘be all and end all’…. Here and now we can fight for the needs of workers, oppressed minorities. We can demand the very liberties that go to the heart of the system’s very legitimation…

Contesting the dominant ideology – which legitimises the rule of concentrated private wealth – is a long term project – a multi-faceted struggle of interlocking social movements… In this process – if there are outbursts of struggle – judgements will need to be made – re: support within the state apparatus; whether those within the apparatus of force and coercion intervene on one side of another, or allow the struggle to play its course…

And of course –again – there is the spectre of global retaliation if foreign interests are expropriated without what they deem to be acceptable reimbursement… And through all this, we cannot just ‘project’ our agendas onto the working class and the many varied social movements…The point is that the working class is not a movement in itself – although organising workers into a movement is another thing altogether… It is reasonable to suppose such movements might support a radical compromise… But maybe not as absolute a transformation as some seek…

This all being the case there will need to be periodic compromise at intervals over the decades – through the course of progressive struggles… And in this we need to contend with power in its many varied forms… Like Billy Bragg says “You can borrow ideas but you can’t borrow situations…”

Comment from Leonie
Time June 9, 2009 at 10:30 pm

Very Gramscian… I think Gramsci with his war of manoeuvre and war of position had an interesting approach, but don’t see the necessary logic of these distinctions.

Indeed the danger is that they mirror and are another expression of Kautsky’s ideas of strategy of overthrow and strategy of attrition.

So the problem for me is that Gramsci’s ideas can fit into a world vision where reform becomes the end in itself. That is Kautskian, and there is a danger of overlapping and eventually devouring the revolutionary content of Gramsci with the dull reformism of Kautsky.

Gramsci’s ideas about hegemony – the manufacturing of consent – I can agree with as does, as you say, Chomsky.

But I’ll give a more considered response in a day or two.

Comment from Leonie
Time June 9, 2009 at 10:40 pm

And another thing.

The point would be whether this approach can be used in a labour party context or a revolutionary party one.

If the former then all the more danger of a collapse into Kautskyism.