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Why won’t the Left split from the Labor Party?

It is important to understand the reasons why Labor’s Parliamentary Left won’t vote against rotten Labor Government legislation or leave the party and form a new party of reformism, John Passant argues.

Labor’s Parliamentary Left has found a voice of sorts against the Malaysian solution.

Yet despite their protestations, Prime Minister Julia Gillard introduced the legislation overturning the High Court’s decision and giving the Immigration Minister carte blanche to send any asylum seeker anywhere, including the hell hole for refugees that is Malaysia.

Debate on the Bill has been postponed for 2 weeks, when Parliament next sits.

The Bill is contrary to the Labor Party platform and policy, which opposes offshore processing and supports onshore processing.

There is some discussion about whether the Labor Left should abstain from the vote on the Bill or even vote against it. To do so would risk expulsion from the party. To not support or vote against a caucus decision is grounds for expulsion from the Party.

Expulsion (but not the fact of the Left voting against the Migration Act amendments) would guarantee the downfall of the Gillard Government.  It would free up a few Labor MPs to vote on principle and not on what the right wing of the ALP determined.

For that reason alone it is unlikely the ALP would in fact expel those who abstained, at least before any election. Their pre-selection would be at risk however.

The Bill will be defeated irrespective of what position the ALP left adopts. It won’t pass the Senate. The Greens have the balance of power and together with the Opposition they will defeat it. It may not even pass the House of Representatives.

Gillard’s tactic in pushing the bill appears to be to attack Tony Abbott from the right – to blame him for refugees seeking asylum here. Of course the boats come because people are fleeing war, persecution, famine, flood – all conditions the ruling classes in the West contribute to with our invasions, our support for friendly dictators and our environmental destruction.

The Labor Party was a social democratic party. It began its life as a party of the trade unions and reflected the pessimism springing from the defeats of the industrial wing of labour in the 1890s. 

It has always been a capitalist workers’ party and the tension between that contradictory fusion has at times produced  a left wanting a new social order a la Jim Cairns or a timid left wanting a few tidbits from the table of capital a la Doug Cameron today.

The ALP historically has been the political expression of the trade union bureaucracy, balancing between labour and capital but with a material interest in the continuation of capitalism.

Over the last 30 years it is clear the Labor Left has degenerated and become more placid, more docile and more and more right-wing. Today’s Labor Left would have been comfortable in the centre right or right in the 60s and 70s.

There are two reasons for this. First the trade union bureaucracy embraced class collaboration in 1982 with its Accord with the ALP, an Accord which saw the bureaucrats win significant positions of power in the Hawke and Keating Governments at the expense of workers and the power of unions.

Class struggle almost disappeared from the industrial landscape.

This industrial embrace of class collaboration was matched by a political embrace of neoliberalism, and the ALP as the outsider party of capital in the 80s and 90s could more easily implement and impose neoliberal reforms on capital as a whole.

As a consequence of the decline of class struggle the decline of our unions began. This too reinforced the neoliberalism of the ALP and fed into and encouraged craven class collaboration. It also saw the development of a political class within the Party. From University to a union or political adviser position and on to a safe seat became a common trajectory.

Workers as workers found no welcome mat at the ALP’s door.

The re-emergence too of cyclical economic crisis as a norm of capitalism from 1973 meant that there was less and less social surplus out of which to fund meaningful pro-working class reforms. The increasing frequency and depth of those crises means that parties of social democracy become not the champions of progressive economic change but the purveyors of austerity.

As I have written elsewhere if a severe economic crisis were to hit Australia (as seems inevitable given our economy’s integration into the global economy) the difference between Julia Gillard and Greek Socialist Party Prime Minister George Papandreou would be a few years.

Socially too, as the Australian political and economic climate became dominated by neoliberalism and managing capitalist crises in between bouts of prosperity, the left moved to the right. 

Sometimes they spoke or speak against war; sometimes not. They have not condemned the ongoing occupation of Afghanistan since Labor assumed power in 2007. They haven’t condemned the US plans to turn Australia into a bigger American military base and bastion of empire against the Chinese.

They have remained silent over the Northern Territory intervention. They did not defended Muslims in any concerted campaign against the systemic racism promulgated by the Australian ruling elite. Gay marriage has been forced on them as an issue by protesters. They have been silent more or less on Labor’s treatment of refugees, until this week.  

They have been followers, not leaders. They have tailed the right.

The Labor Left performs a valuable role for capitalism. It can be the release valve in times of political crisis. It acts in time of conservatism as a cover for Labor’s stampede to the right economically and socially.  

‘If only there were more of us.’ It is a tired argument. Joining a party whose raison d’etre is managing capitalism is not a vehicle for progressive change. Building struggles in the workplaces and the streets is. Building an organisation to challenge the rule of capital is the real alternative, not games in the Parliamentary Labor Party.

Some trade unions have been disappointed with Labor in power. It is still illegal to strike, except in certain restricted circumstances. The draconian Australian Building and Construction Commission continues to harass building workers and deny them basic rights.

Despite having a female Labor Party Prime Minister, workers in the community sector continue to be underpaid because 80 percent of them are women. There aren’t enough teachers and nurses and they aren’t adequately paid.

There is a possible base there for some left wing ALP parliamentarians to link up with dissatisfied unions to forge a new left wing reformist party in Australia. It won’t happen.

There are of course the immediate material reasons why it won’t happen. Left wing Labor parliamentarians might lose their seat, the good pay, the pension, the cars, the attention, the little power they have, if they were in a left wing reformist party.

Given Labor support is hovering below 30 percent for the last three months, losing seats is on the agenda for many Labor Party members anyway.

But there is a deeper reason. Reformism has as its raison d’etre managing capitalism. The ability to do that for the benefit of the working class depends in the end on the growth and success of capitalism.

So divisions within social democracy over the way forward are best fought out in a unified party where the debates over the secondary issue – the way to benefit workers – don’t undermine the primary objective, managing capitalism.

There is one caveat to that. Although the ALP is a capitalist workers’ party the dominance of the capitalist component might be overbearing and lead to the view that Labor is just another Liberal Party.

The Party might be moving from being a party of the trade union bureaucracy to one of capital itself. If so, then the pressures to form a reformist party based on that bureaucracy would become greater. It would be an attempt to save social democracy by leaving its original body.

The working class desire for reform springs from the exploitative relationship between labour and capital. That is why we revolutionaries argue that we must be the best, most thoroughgoing, reformers.

In Germany the Social Democratic Party and The Left (Die Linke) are in political and electoral competition and co-operation.  Maybe that could happen here too, although the social and political history of Germany indicates a more bifurcated political spectrum and a stronger left reformist current in wider sections of the working class than exists in Australia. 

Some might argue that  a Left alternative to Labor already exists in the form of the Greens. There is nothing particularly left wing about the Greens. They have no links to the organised working class. As their mantra about a price on carbon shows, the Greens’ dominant economic ethos is neoliberalism.

When the Labor Left fights for real principles we should support them. But that is all too infrequent, especially among the Parliamentary Left.

Labor’s Parliamentary Left is so wedded to the Labor Party that it will remain the apologist for and provide the cover to Labor Party reaction. It is as much the enemy of liberation and progress as the right wing.

Our task must be to build a Socialist Alternative to enable workers to challenge the rule of capital.



Comment from Dr_Tad
Time September 25, 2011 at 12:20 pm

This analysis comes so close to the line of Third Period Stalinism on social democracy that it’s not funny. Maybe good for whipping up the troops within Socialist Alternative, but a strategic dead end if you want to build mass influence for revolutionary politics.

Verging on frightening.

Comment from John
Time September 25, 2011 at 12:33 pm

What rubbish Dr_Tad. Pointing out the Parliamentary Labor Left’s failures is Third Period Stalinism? Very strange. Dunno, my article looks more to me like Lenin’s condemnation of the social patriots. Looking forward to your defence of social patriotism very soon. You really don’t have much understanding of history if you think I am calling the Labor Party social fascists (which for interested readers is what Dr_Tad’s bizarre reference to third period stalinism is code for.) Very frightening.

Comment from John
Time September 25, 2011 at 12:54 pm

My target for this article was in fact labor party left wing rank and file, those who have left in dusgust and those who in the past might have been members but can’t stomach the idea of joining what the ALP has become. And those who realise the neoliberal nature of the Greens. They are the type of people we need to win over and explaining the reality of the Parliamentary left and the Greens is one way of doing that. Coupled with the reality of them in power. And a more generalised resistance.

Comment from Dr_Tad
Time September 25, 2011 at 4:42 pm

The defining aspect of Third Period Stalinism was not the rhetoric of “social fascism” but the strategic approach, which looked to winning reformist workers only on the basis that they had first broken from their reformist leaders.

I think it’s disingenuous to say that the target of this post was the “labor party left wing rank and file” because you make no effort to differentiate between them and their MPs. In practice you are demanding the same kind of unity with socialists that the Communist Parties did in their Third Period phase — that they must first come to your conclusion that their leaders are hopeless.

The key problem with your argument is that you foreclose on the potential for splits in the reformist camp. It is telling that you argue why ALP Left MPs won’t break from the Government (“There is a possible base there for some left wing ALP parliamentarians to link up with dissatisfied unions to forge a new left wing reformist party in Australia. It won’t happen. … Left wing Labor parliamentarians might lose their seat, the good pay, the pension, the cars, the attention, the little power they have, if they were in a left wing reformist party.”) but then raise Die Linke which was formed with the participation of exactly those kinds of splitters from the SPD — most importantly Oskar Lafontaine.

It’s as if you imagine that in a rich Western capitalist nation the revolutionary Left can win mass influence without relating to the likelihood of such splits within reformism.

It’s odd, because you effectively make Laborism look monolithic at exactly the time it is the weakest it has been since the Great Depression (and perhaps weaker).

Comment from David McInerney
Time September 25, 2011 at 5:48 pm

Careerism. That’s the answer you are both looking for. The ALP Left will not split from the party because of worries over pre-selection, re-election, and paying their mortgages etc. Or they might be trying to hitch a ride to a better job via ALP connections. Those within the ALP who do not see it as a career path will no doubt leave due to lack of left content in ALP policies, if they have not already done so years ago.

Comment from John
Time September 25, 2011 at 5:48 pm

And if I am wrong and there is this mass agitation among Labor left rank and file and it is about to burst forth, disabuse me of it. All I can see is them being lost to politics because labor’s left leaders are moving right and won’t fight, and the alternatives are too small. Some might go to the Greens. But that is hardly a party of the working class in anyone’s imagination. And I suggest you read the article. I do refer to the Parliamentary Left throughout the article which I think is more than just a little bit of a distinction. I don’t however have illusions in the remaining Labor membership. To me the real possibilities for building a party to challenge the reformism of Labor and attract its better members or those who have left in disgust are appealing to those who want to fight today and want reforms today, not through interminable and essentially futile ALP meetings where the polciy anyway is ridden roughshod over bytche leadership but in the struggles of the day and the battle over ideas. Revolutionaries being the best reformists sums that up.

Comment from Ben Courtice
Time September 25, 2011 at 6:42 pm

Tad: I can agree with you that John’s one-size-fits-all “join Socialist Alternative” isn’t particularly enlightening. But the ALP in 2011 is not really that similar to the German Social Democratic Party in 1933. Your points are convincing enough in terms of general logic – but do we really expect the ALP left to revive and fight for change? In my experience, there is a declining base of activists in the ALP and unions, probably comparable in size to the active membership of the Greens. Few of the ALP are active outside the parameters set by their party or union, as far as I can tell, unlike the Greens who do not regulate or direct the activism of their membership so much outside of elections. I’m not advocating that a “third period” line would make sense, but we need a sense of proportion about how important the ALP rank and file are to the future of the left. !

Comment from Dr_Tad
Time September 25, 2011 at 7:05 pm

All your article will do is depress the members (and non-member supporters) of the ALP Left MPs, precisely because revolutionaries cannot be “the best reformists” if they follow your strategy. To be “the best reformists” you need to learn how to lead those immediately to your Right (whether in ideas or action), not just carp about the failures of their reformist leaders from the sidelines. Which is really all your post does.

Your mistake will be even worse when there is movement among ALP members and supporters but, as with the Greens, you’ll write off its significance for building a new Left. Self-fulfilling prophecy, really.

Comment from Dr_Tad
Time September 25, 2011 at 7:39 pm

David, I think the reduction of the problem to “careerism” is a slippery slope for Marxist analysis here. It’s more in line with what the Greens argue about the ALP, actually.

Comment from John
Time September 25, 2011 at 7:45 pm

What fucking one size fits all? FFS. And what points of Tad’s are convincing in logic? That I am a third period Stalinist sectarian? The idea is fatuous, ahistorical and laughable. Tad makes no case for this slander. None. His pro-Labor position is a mistake of historic proportions. He is siding with Gillard and Bowen against those of us on the left critical of this filth. Good luck with that, apologists for Labor.

Comment from Ben Courtice
Time September 25, 2011 at 8:03 pm

Pardon. When you said “our task must be to build a socialist alternative” and linked to your own groupuscule, I assumed that you were suggesting that SA is in itself that socialist alternative (which tends to be the case in your articles). Of course I wouldn’t agree with that, as you know…

I’d like to see Tad’s response to my suggestion he is blowing things out of proportion a bit with the “3rd period” analogy. However to say he is siding with Gillard is also a bit rich…

Comment from Ben Courtice
Time September 25, 2011 at 8:07 pm

… and logically, it makes perfect sense to say that denunciation of the Labor misleaders won’t win over their supporters. That’s what I mean. I work with ALP members, and have done, for years; there’s no point harping on that too much it just pisses them off and burns bridges.

But on the sense-of-proportion matter… there’s not enough activist Labor members around anymore to really mean a lot. I don’t know that there are that many left to be won over. I’m not against winning them over, I just wouldn’t base my whole strategy on appealing to such a small group.

Comment from Dr_Tad
Time September 25, 2011 at 8:12 pm

I didn’t say you’re a Third Period Stalinist, John. Read my comment again.

That you are forced to say, “He is siding with Gillard and Bowen against those of us on the left critical of this filth. Good luck with that, apologists for Labor,” strikes me as confirmation of my original point.

Comment from John
Time September 25, 2011 at 8:53 pm

I am not forced to say anything. Your position is an apologia for Labor.

Comment from John
Time September 25, 2011 at 8:56 pm

Even if that were the case how is this one size fits all. Building a revolutionary organisation is not one size fits all. It is working with the aim of becoming the party of the militant section of the class. The comment is crass nonsense.

Comment from John
Time September 25, 2011 at 9:02 pm

You said: ‘This analysis comes so close to the line of Third Period Stalinism on social democracy that it’s not funny.’ That looks to me like you are calling me a third period Stalinist. And of course the comment is absolute bullshit. What, that I would suddenly reject an upsurge in activity by ALP members, for example reject the equivalent of socialisation units, if they were to develop, as social fascism? Based on what I wrote in this article about the Parliamentary Left’s capitulation to Gillard, the decline of reformism and its adoption of neoliberalism etc etc? Really? Don’t see it myself. So which side are you on in your defence of Labor?

Comment from Dr_Tad
Time September 25, 2011 at 9:21 pm

“Apologists for Labor”, “Defence of Labor”… Says it all, really.

Comment from Shane Hopkinson
Time September 25, 2011 at 9:30 pm

I agree with Tad and have said similar things to you before John tho only those on far-left or formerly so would frame the discussion based on the 1930s. Its the kind of sectarian politics that I have tried to explain dozens on times. By sectarian I don’t mean narrow or close minded I mean that the analysis stems from one that puts the interests or needs of the particular far-left group ahead of the movement of the working class (such as it is).

Instead of analysing the current situation and working out ways to orient towards it the only strategy is to denounce the ALP as traitors and expect that somehow this will result in the scales falling from the working classes eyes and they will all sign up to your brand of revolution and elevate you into the place of leadership the ALP now occupies (but of course all your cadres will act completely differently from the present ones).

Anyone who criticises the strategy is simply labelled a reformist or abandoning the revolutionary road (ie the one true brand of socialism).

I know thats all a bit of a rant but the essence of its there. When I was with the DSP there was all sorts of talk about new formations – the SSP was a big favourite then its origins in a particular kind of long-term entrism was ignored.

It has been an orthodox trotskyist position from the get-go to be where the most radicalising workers are. At first they tried to unite with Communist Parties – then it was assumed they would be in the Labour Parties since thats where the class conscious workers were. We could argue about the current validity of this but thats what we should be arguing about – how do, what are for the most part, very small groups of revolutionary students and ex-students work to build a revolutionary agenda.

Who is the audience for this piece of writing? Is it radicalising members of the working class and middle class? who, to the extent they exist at all, are breaking to the right. If so what are they to make of it? That they should abandon a party they, and their families, have supported for decades and sign up to a tiny group of student revolutionaries? I mean really.

In fact of course the audience for this type of writing are members of the Socialist Alternative who views are reinforced thereby.

Comment from Jammo
Time September 25, 2011 at 9:38 pm

Without getting into name calling, just a question for both Dr_Tad and Ben Courtice. How do you expect revolutionaries (and I’m assuming that is both your political perspectives) to win those with reformist views if you can’t criticize Labor leaders and their left counterparts in the ALP?
This involves not just those currently in the ALP, the Greens and those who left both parties in disgust, but the ordinary masses of the working class who still have illusions in parliament.
Through political trickery? Hiding you revolutionary perspectives? Or by being honest?
(And please, no crap about John and SA or myself in the Revolutionary Socialist Party being sectarian in calling for building a party based on a Marxist platform etc.)

Comment from John
Time September 25, 2011 at 10:16 pm

Thanks Jammo.

And all this drivel is detracting from the real points in the article about the ongoing degeneration of the ALP, the neo-liberalism and class collaboration of the party and union movement, the cover the parliamentary left gives to that process, the Party’s possible qualitative change to an open party of capital, which needs much further exploration, and the attempt to appeal to those few in Australia who currently despite the incredibly difficult circumstances are drawing left wing conclusions about what is happening in the world, including in Australia and who want to be part of the fight for reforms.