Running to where the ball will be: a reprise
I wrote this in 2009 and have updated it slightly with current strike levels and to fix up a numerical error.
It was Wayne Gretzky who once described his ice hockey greatness in these terms: I skate to where the puck is going to be.
As we socialists plough yet again the seemingly dry fields, it is a message we should heed.
Our work now prepares us for the ultimate goal, a class for and of itself, ready and ripe for revolution and the conquest of political power.
As we do our steady propaganda work, and educate ourselves in the ideas of socialism and intervene as we can in the struggles around us, we are in fact preparing ourselves for that historic battle of the two main classes for power.
That doesn’t mean we ignore where the ball is now. That helps us understand where it will be in the future.
In doing that we begin to judge how best we can use the shifts in the class struggle to the advantage of our class.
Rosa Luxemburg wrote a classic and oft misunderstood piece about trade unionism in which she described trade union work as the labour of Sisyphus.
Trade unions are nothing more than the organised defence of labour power against the attacks of profit. They express the resistance offered by the working class to the oppression of capitalist economy.
… trade unions have the function of influencing the situation in the labour-power market. But this influence is being constantly overcome by the proletarianisation of the middle layers of our society, a process which continually brings new merchandise on the labour market. The second function of the trade unions is to ameliorate the condition of the workers. That is, they attempt to increase the share of the social wealth going to the working class. This share, however, is being reduced with the fatality of a natural process, by the growth of the productivity of labour …
In other words, the objective conditions of capitalist society transform the two economic functions of the trade unions into a sort of labour of Sisyphus, which is, nevertheless, indispensable. For, as a result of the activity of his trade unions, the worker succeeds in obtaining for himself the rate of wages due to him in accordance with the situation of the labour-power market. As a result of trade union activity, the capitalist law of wages is applied and the effect of the depressing tendency of economic development is paralysed, or, to be more exact, is attenuated.
Sometimes it seems we party building socialists are labouring like Sisyphus.
But our activity builds our intellectual and organisational muscles and prepares us and the working class for the day when it goes on the offensive.
At the moment we are small. There are perhaps a bit under 300 people in Australia in Socialist Alternative, the main political expression of the tendency I belong to.
But our activity and ideas regularly attract a small but growing number of people to us.
We have within us the seeds of a political party able to intervene in the class struggle and build a party capable of being the pistons to labour’s steam.
The level of class quietude dictates that the main focus for socialists must be the campuses where the battle of ideas is at its peak during times of class peace.
But even then groups like Students for Palestine, the campaigns in support of equal love (organised and built successfully by Socialist Alternative members along with many others), the stalls, and more generally the ongoing agitation against Labor and Liberal attacks on refugees, workers, government services, students and so on show a heartening attempt to put theory into practice.
This campus strategy hasn’t produced a turn away from the working class as the agency of fundamental change in society and its own liberation. In 2012 there has been an increase in strikes as public servants resist Liberal government attacks on jobs and services, teachers and nurses fighting for better pay and conditions and building workers fighting for safe workplaces and better pay and conditions. But even that needs perspective. The number of strikes today in Australia is still at historically low levels, about 1% of what it was at its height in the 60s and 70s and about a fifth of what it was twenty years ago when Keating introduced enterprise bargaining.
Most students become workers after a few years at university, but workers now armed with an understanding of class and class politics.
Marxists can’t predict the future, but it seems likely that at some stage class struggle in Australia will return, perhaps even explode, despite the deadening influence of the Labor Party and the Australian Council of Trade Unions.
The more people who are prepared practically and theoretically for that day the closer we will be to a truly democratic society where production is organised to satisfy human need. Then begins our liberation.
Join us in running to where the ball will be.