In defence of Socialist Alternative
I was reading a Green Unionist Facebook post last night asserting that Socialist Alternative was a cult. Most of the responses were supportive of the organisation but it got me wondering about why someone would say this.
From later comments it appeared the main objection, after talking to one member of Socialist Alternative, was that we don’t support parliamentary democracy. (The post has since been removed).
Many socialists do not support parliamentary democracy. This is not because we are dictators but because we want to extend democracy into the workplace. We want the people who create all the wealth – workers – to democratically make the decisions about what should be produced to satisfy human needs. That is, in a nutshell, socialism.
Parliamentary democracy is limited. It divorces the elected from the electors. It puts bums on seats for those wanting to serve capital. It bows before the altar of profit; it does not challenge it.
Most major change has come in this world not because a group of good hearted men (it is almost always men) have been elected to Parliament to change the world. Even if that happens, it is generally a consequence of mass working class and other struggles in society.
In a small way the election of the Whitlam government with a mildly reformist program is an example of this. The mass demonstrations against the Vietnam war and the increasing number of strikes, including a virtual general strike in 1969 to free jailed union official Clarrie O’Shea, shifted society to the left and kept Whitlam, the very right wing Labor leader to his promises about health and education.
In a negative way you can see the impact of parliamentarianism on the Greens themselves. The idea that selecting good Greens will change the world has in fact seen the Greens as an organisation withdraw from many progressive campaigns. Its parliamentary leadership is not vehemently pro-union, but as the carbon tax shows, it is pro-market.
As the permafrost thaws and the Arctic and Antarctic continue to melt at record levels,and with the IPCC predicting now increases of 4 to 6 degrees C in the next century, it is becoming clear to me that parliamentary solutions within the context of capitalism cannot and won’t address climate change.
Indeed there are in my view no solutions because to address climate in a systemic way would be to address the driver for climate change – the profit system and the environmental destruction that is inherent to this mode of production.
The irony is that at a time when we need the Greens mobilising more and more workers to save the planet, they have as a group retreated into parliamentarianism, the market and incremental change over time. Responding to impending environmental catastrophe I believe requires a different, radical approach.
Socialist Alternative offers one of those different and I believe appropriate and effective approaches. As we say in our What we stand for – General principles:
Revolution not reform
In countries like Australia, our rulers say they support democracy. Yet most people have only a minimal say in what goes on. We elect a government every three years or so, but in between, we have almost no control over what it does. More importantly, the most significant decisions in society are made by unelected people. The heads of big corporations decide what products are produced, who they will employ and what those jobs will be. Socialists want a new form of democracy. We are for a society in which ordinary people control every aspect of life, a democracy that’s economic as well as political.
There is no parliamentary road to socialism. Bitter experience has shown that mere tinkering with our society will not end oppression or exploitation. The attempts of parties like the ALP and the Greens in Australia to reform capitalism have always ended in disappointment.
The capitalist class controls the state, i.e. the army, the courts, the police and the parliament. The capitalist state resists attempts to reform the system and meets challenges to its power with violence. For workers and the oppressed to liberate themselves, revolution is necessary to overthrow this rotten system and to create a new one.
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. Such a revolution will not be achieved by a coup or the heroic efforts of a minority. We are not anarchists, who argue against all states – even one democratically controlled by the working class. Nor do we support terrorism, guerillaism, or any variant of so called “revolutionary” politics that conceives social change as coming through the actions of anything other than the conscious self-activity of the mass of workers.
These ideas do not make Socialist Alternative a ‘cult’. In fact they indicate a serous level of analysis that, rather than dismiss, the Greens should try to address. (I don’t think they can, but that is another question).
A cult would be a group putting its ideas to society, or workers or others as ‘take it or leave it’. Here is the truth, follow us. Rather than working with others, a cult has the revealed truth and those who don’t immediately join are doomed or beyond salvation or whatever the appropriate socialism as religion analogy is. It preaches at the sinners.
Socialist Alternative does not do that. Certainly we, like the Greens, the ALP and the Liberals, make our arguments at a general level about the way we see the world working. We emphasise the class divisions in society and the capacity workers have to remake the world. We also look to understand the drivers of our society, or as Marx put it in Capital Vol 1:
Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets! “Industry furnishes the material which saving accumulates.” Therefore, save, save, i.e., reconvert the greatest possible portion of surplus-value, or surplus-product into capital! Accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake: by this formula classical economy expressed the historical mission of the bourgeoisie, and did not for a single instant deceive itself over the birth-throes of wealth. But what avails lamentation in the face of historical necessity? If to classical economy, the proletarian is but a machine for the production of surplus-value; on the other hand, the capitalist is in its eyes only a machine for the conversion of this surplus-value into additional capital.
But we do not just or even quote from scripture. We put our commitment into practice. We don’t stand on the sidelines shouting slogans about a correct program. We involve ourselves where we can in campaigns, strikes and demonstrations to both improve the life of people, especially workers, here and now, and to learn from the struggles.
A small group of less than 300 people has to be realistic about what it can do. But for such a small group our interventions have been exemplary.
For example we have been heavily involved in building the Equal Love campaign and keeping the issue alive and the pressure on. Ali Hogg, a Socialist Alternative member, has won awards for her fantastic work in the campaign. Here is what Wikipedia says:
Equal Love’s Convener, Ali Hogg, won an ALSO award the same year  as the ‘Most Outstanding Volunteer’ for her work in the campaign. In 2011, Hogg was recognised in the ‘Absolut People’s Choice’ award as the country’s most influential LGBT person for her work in Equal Love, as part of Same Same’s ’25 Most Influential LGBTI Australians’.
We also work in other campaigns, for example for refugees, in support of Palestine, abortion rights, equal pay, against the Northern Territory intervention, for Aboriginal sovereignty and in our unions (more of which a little later). We also support workers in struggle and in the last 12 months notable support we have provided includes to Baiada workers, Coles/Toll Holdings workers and building workers around wages and other conditions – Lend Lease and Queensland Children’s Hospital – and safety, most notably Grocon. It is my comrades in Socialist Alternative, (and me in the case of the Lend Lease dispute) along with others, who have stood with the unionists fighting for decent pay, conditions, jobs and safety.
In our own unions we try to make the arguments for the way forward in the face of attacks on jobs, pay and conditions. This isn’t standing on the sidelines shouting the revealed truth. It is about fighting here and now for and with workers.
It is not just that we do this because we can. It is our commitment to socialism – a democratic society where workers organise production to satisfy human need – that drives us and the realisation that the class struggle here and now can improve the lot of the working class and also provide the basis for future struggles in the seemingly never ending class war, eventually involving a revolution of the mass of the working class to abolish classes and that class war, as well as war around the globe.
There is an element of united front activity too in all of this, although an organisation of 300 people can’t grandiosely demand that reformists in the Greens and the ALP work with us for a common immediate goal that will benefit workers or others.
But what we can do is, where we have the resources, involve ourselves in the struggles of workers for a better world now. We do. For example Louisa Bassini, one of our members, along with another delegate, won the Victorian and Tasmanian ASU Young Delegates of the Year award for her great work in her workplace fighting for better wages, conditions and in doing that building the union by attracting many new members to it.
Workers can draw their own conclusions from who has been involved in support work or arguing for strike action for example in their workplaces to win. The ALP won’t be doing that, and I doubt the Greens do either. That abstention by major political parties from supporting workers or making the militant arguments sows or will sow its own reward.
This of course raises another issue. We only have 300 members so our impact on struggles and campaigns is by and large small and our ability to make the more general points about a new world of democracy and satisfying human need is hindered. Recently Socialist Alternative put out a document arguing for ‘A new kind of left unity’ on the revolutionary left. We are trying to unite the revolutionaries in Australia over the great number of things we agree upon. We say:
We want to contribute to building sustained resistance to the system, a fightback that can eventually become a revolutionary challenge to the existing order.
We share with many others on the socialist left the conviction that a crucial component of any effective challenge to capitalism will be the construction of revolutionary socialist organisations in every country that can challenge reformist forces like the Labor Party for leadership of the workers’ movement, and organise militant workers and students into a force that can lead a sustained assault on the institutions of capitalist rule.
We don’t deny we are a very long way from such an ambitious goal today. But even the most perfunctory look at the dire future facing the planet, and the crisis of world capitalism that is savaging working class living standards across the globe, indicates the urgency of building a challenge not just to aspects of capitalism, but to the system as a whole.
What does this mean in reality? We go on to say:
So what are we proposing? In simple terms: a regroupment of the revolutionary socialist left in Australia. In the period since the great struggles of the 1960s and 70s a great number of socialists have gone through the varied far-left organisations. Many of these organisations have come and gone, and when they went many revolutionaries went with them, not feeling there was another group they could join.
What we want to create is an organisation that does not start with the historic differences that divide the far left, but a socialist program for Australia today: for revolution; for a Marxist party; against imperialism; against all oppression; against the capitalist state; for workers’ power.
Because this is a new process, bringing in different traditions on the left, it will and does contain people with different views. That means such a regroupment can only survive if, as the document puts it, there is debate between revolutionaries. Not only that but, as the document also says: ‘When and if these different traditions lead us to disagree on issues of practical policy, we will debate them out in a democratic manner, including in our publications.’
Further, supposed ‘Leninism’ will not prevent comrades from disagreeing publicly with the organisation and to argue for their positions within the organisation.
Socialist Alternative is a vibrant organisation arguing for a fundamental regroupment of the revolutionary left. It is in discussions with the Revolutionary Socialist Party about a merger. A number of independent socialists have recently joined the organisation understanding that what unites us is much greater than what divides us and that those differences can and will be debated out in a comradely fashion and public disagreement with the majority view can be and is an important part of that process.
The debates can be robust. People committed to a new world and how to win it will put their views strongly. But once those debates have occurred and the direction set, comrades will put aside their differences to work for that new world of freedom and democracy, of organising production to satisfy human need in the long term, and the winning of reforms against the system in the short term.
A cult? I don’t think so. A serious organisation looking to build a unified organisation on the revolutionary left to fight the battles ahead? Absolutely.
I would urge all those committed to revolution and socialism to at least consider the proposed new unified revolutionary left as one real option for your future political activity.