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December 2011



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My interview Razor Sharp 18 February
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp on Tuesday 18 February. (0)

My interview Razor Sharp 11 February 2014
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp this morning. The Royal Commission, car industry and age of entitlement get a lot of the coverage. (0)

Razor Sharp 4 February 2014
Me on 4 February 2014 on Razor Sharp with Sharon Firebrace. (0)

Time for a House Un-Australian Activities Committee?
Tony Abbott thinks the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is Un-Australian. I am looking forward to his government setting up the House Un-Australian Activities Committee. (1)

Make Gina Rinehart work for her dole

Sick kids and paying upfront


Save Medicare

Demonstrate in defence of Medicare at Sydney Town Hall 1 pm Saturday 4 January (0)

Me on Razor Sharp this morning
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace this morning for Razor Sharp. It happens every Tuesday. (0)

I am not surprised
I think we are being unfair to this Abbott ‘no surprises’ Government. I am not surprised. (0)

Send Barnaby to Indonesia
It is a pity that Barnaby Joyce, a man of tact, diplomacy, nuance and subtlety, isn’t going to Indonesia to fix things up. I know I am disappointed that Barnaby is missing out on this great opportunity, and I am sure the Indonesians feel the same way. [Sarcasm alert.] (0)



The nature and tasks of a small socialist group in Australia today

This article first appeared in Socialist Alternative in January 2008 and I reprinted it a few months ago. While it remains in its general approach something I agree with, it does need updating for example to reflect the fact that Socialist Alternative is the biggest far left group in Australia, (which while an achievement, is not saying that much in the overall scheme of things), that it is an interventionist revolutionary group, that its membership includes many many workers, that the student approach is worthwhile but a tactic not a principle and that the organisation does significant union work where it can. The ongoing economic crisis, the Arab Spring, the European demonstrations and strikes against austerity, the Russian Winter and the Occupy movement also have to be addressed in any more up to date assessment. I hope to do that in a later post.

The aim of socialists is to build a mass revolutionary party that can cohere working class resistance to the attacks of the capitalist class and eventually lead a revolution that will bring workers to power. But the reality is that in every country socialists are a very long way from achieving that goal. There are today no mass revolutionary parties and a genuine revolutionary party is not going to be conjured from the air. There are no short cuts, no magic formulas. It is going to take determined effort by serious-minded socialists. But the previous history of the socialist movement does provide us with some important guidelines as to how to approach the task.

All the history of our movement shows that socialists can’t begin to build a mass revolutionary workers’ party until two essential preconditions are met. The first is a decisive radicalisation among a significant layer of workers that makes them receptive to socialist ideas. This is almost completely beyond the control of socialists; it will occur as workers are forced to rebel against the deprivations of world capitalism. The second precondition – one socialists do have some control over – is that we have cohered a reasonably sizeable body of committed revolutionaries, a cadre, that is capable of intervening in mass struggles with convincing arguments to win a layer of workers to socialism. The traditional mechanism by which that initial cadre is cohered is via a socialist propaganda group.

In the Marxist tradition there are three main types of organisation: discussion circles, propaganda groups and parties. These categories are not arbitrary, but are used to describe qualitatively different types of organisation. Discussion circles are tiny groups attempting to establish a Marxist tradition. Their main orientation is theoretical clarification. Political activity such as selling a magazine or intervening in strikes is a low priority. They recruit on the basis of a relatively high level of theory. Propaganda groups are involved in a broader range of activity, but because they are small and lack influence in the working class, they recruit on the basis of ideas. Socialists make a distinction between two kinds of propaganda: general (sometimes called abstract) and concrete. Discussion circles are mostly concerned with general propaganda arguing the core ides of Marxism or the distinctive ideas of a specific revolutionary current. But a propaganda group also engages in concrete propaganda. By this Marxists mean propaganda which might at times seem agitational, i.e. calling for action. For example, socialists call for the US to get out of Iraq. A small socialist group cannot organise the type of mass action needed to get the US out. But by raising the slogan, socialists attempt to find an audience among people who agree that the US should get out. Socialists use the specific facts about an issue like the occupation of Iraq to build up an argument to convince their audience of the need to oppose US imperialism across the board.

In contrast, general propaganda begins from a general proposition of, say, Marxist internationalism and gives a more theorised argument about why someone should for example oppose Australian military intervention in the Solomons. It should be clear from these examples that there is not always a clear dividing line between concrete and general propaganda. A propaganda group uses both, and while involved in activity, it cannot recruit primarily by demonstrating its politics in action. A mass party is different again. Because of its weight of numbers and influence, it can have an impact on the class struggle and recruit on this basis. Propaganda is still vital for a party, but the balance of its work may be more agitational. It can, at least for some section of the working class, provide a real alternative to the betrayals of the Labor Party and the reformist trade union leaders and deliver action – it can take struggles forward. In Australia we are talking of a party of tens of thousands.

Discussion circles were important when revolutionaries had to lay down the basic ideas of Marxism. They are still necessary in countries where there is little tradition of Marxism. But once a core of people have settled on the ideas around which they organise, they can begin to think how they can recruit more systematically, while gaining some experience in applying these ideas to the concrete questions of the day. This entails producing and distributing a regular publication and holding meetings to which people who are not necessarily committed to the core ideas of socialism can come and discuss politics and theory. You then have the basics of a propaganda group.

It is very important to be clear on the distinction between a propaganda group and a mass party – in particular, that propaganda groups do not have the capacity to lead workers in major struggles and recruit on that basis. They must rely primarily on their general socialist ideas. Socialists want to change the world. We would much prefer to be leading mass strikes and demonstrations rather than patiently seeking individual sympathisers. However, we recognise that while we can play an important role in initiating some localised struggles and provide some of the key activists in a variety of campaign groups, we are, as yet, too small to have any serious impact on the major struggles that break out. We can only recruit handfuls of people, not move the masses.

Today Socialist Alternative is in the business of arguing general socialist ideas around a broad range of questions – the nature of imperialism, the need for mass action rather than reliance on parliament, the central role of the working class in fighting for a better world, the difference between genuine socialism and Stalinism – not organising mass action, taking over the leadership of the ACTU or offering an electoral alternative to the ALP and Greens. Indeed, if we were to attempt to do these things, we would be courting disaster. If we look at the history of the socialist movement, we can see that one of the key reasons why so many small revolutionary groups came to grief is that they overestimated their own capabilities and greatly exaggerated their ability to influence struggles or campaigns. All too often they attempted to leap over the stage of development dictated by the balance of forces between bosses and workers and the limitations imposed by their own small size. They were too impatient. They often spurned the conception of being a propaganda group and tried to act as “agitational groups”. They put out papers with heaps of strike reports, as though they had a mass working class readership. But headlines that don’t move workers into action are not agitational in any meaningful sense. They are make-believe. The only people fooled are the socialists themselves, who mistrain their members to believe they are genuinely engaged in agitation. Similarly, small groups of socialists who declare themselves to be “activist groups” or parties are deluding themselves. Because of their small size, they remain propaganda groups, whatever they think they are. But they are confused propaganda groups and therefore a lot less effective than they could be.

This does not mean that a propaganda group can’t do things, or that it sits around discussing obscure theoretical issues. Socialist Alternative is not a discussion circle, we try to reach people beyond our ranks, involve them in political activity and win them to socialism. But our activity is determined by a clear recognition of what it is possible to achieve today and what our limitations are. We are primarily arguing our ideas – selling our magazine, running information stalls, holding meetings, talking to individuals, organising study groups, selling books – not agitating for mass action or running for parliament.

Nor does this approach mean that a propaganda group ignores the debates, the campaigns and struggles that are taking place in society all the time. Socialist Alternative tries to respond to all the major issues of the day, from attacks on workers’ rights, the racist demonising of Muslims and refugees, gay bashing and anti-Aboriginal racism or the widening gulf between the super-rich and the rest of us and the threat of imperialist war. Socialist Alternative has been active in numerous campaigns, including the protests against Pauline Hanson, the defence of the Maritime Union, the demonstrations against the Iraq war, the anti-capitalist movement, the refugee movement, the union mobilisations against WorkChoices and innumerable student protests. Our members are active as militants in their trade unions and in student unions.

However we recognise that we were in no position to challenge for the leadership of the campaign against WorkChoices or the enormous protests against the war on Iraq in 2003. Instead we attempt to relate to people shaken up and radicalised by these movements and who are looking for political answers to explain why these attacks are happening and what can be done to change the world. But we can’t convince people to become active and useful socialists by preaching timeless truths about the nature of capitalism. We need to be able to confidently answer their concrete questions about the issues of the day and to refute the arguments of the right wing and the reformists. We participate in these movements to argue how they can win – for the need for mass action rather than relying on the ALP – and to explain how the drive to imperialist war and the attacks on workers’ living standards are all the product of a capitalist system in which a wealthy minority lives off the labour of the mass of workers. In other words, we intervene to argue ideas – to make concrete propaganda – to try to win people radicalised by these protests to a socialist standpoint. We also see intervening in these movements as vital training. It is a way to test our analysis and arguments about capitalism today. It is a way to hone the arguments of our existing members so that they can intervene more effectively and cohere a layer of people around us. It is a way to integrate new members recruited from these movements, as they have to go out and try to convince other people of our arguments about the road forward. It is a means to educate ourselves so that we can actually play a central leading role in the future, when we have accumulated more forces.

There is nothing unusual about Marxists being in a small minority in capitalist society. In fact, this has been the case for most of the century and a half since Marx and Engels founded the revolutionary socialist movement. There is a simple explanation for this fact: the ideas of this society are predominantly the ideas of the bosses. The owners of the means of production – the factories, the mines, the offices – also dominate the reproduction of ideas. The capitalists control the education system, the media, advertising, the courts, the government bureaucracy – all the institutions that mould ideas and values. But when the fabric of capitalist society is ruptured by revolt, socialist ideas can break the bosses’ hold over the way workers think about their lives. In other times, Marxists have to be prepared to be a minority, but not a passive minority. We form a nucleus that prepares for opportunities that unfold when radical outbursts occur. The classic example of this was the Emancipation of Labour Group, the first Russian Marxist group founded by Georgii Plekhanov in 1883, which I will examine in a subsequent chapter. It started as a tiny group in extremely unfavourable circumstances. Yet this isolated group gave birth to a movement that shook the whole of Russian society in two great waves of revolution in 1905 and 1917, and led workers to power in October 1917.

Political clarification

The Emancipation of Labour Group planted the flag. They carved out a distinct Marxist tradition that paved the way for future generations of Russian Marxists. They provided a clear ideological critique of rival political currents. The first task of a socialist propaganda group is ideological clarification, the sorting out of ideas, and the training of a group of dedicated revolutionaries in those ideas. Since groups like Socialist Alternative are primarily in the business of arguing ideas, we can only build on a secure foundation for the future if our ideas are as clear and precise as possible. The smaller the group, the greater the emphasis has to be on theory. Otherwise there is no way that it can survive. To borrow a metaphor from Leon Trotsky, a tiny axe can chop down the most gigantic tree, but only if the blade is sharp. Our ideas have to be finely honed.

But why is it so important to clarify our ideas now, when Marxism does not have a mass following? The answer is that an upsurge of revolt puts revolutionary politics to the most severe test. Any confusion, any major error can be disastrous for the whole working class movement. We only have to look at the range of theoretical and strategic questions that Lenin and the Bolsheviks had to master in order to lead the Russian revolution to victory in 1917. They had to come to grips with the imperialist nature of World War I, the need for workers to turn the war into a civil war against their own ruling class. Lenin had to rediscover one of Marx’s most important teachings: that the capitalist state had to be smashed for workers to come to power. In the period after the February revolution, Lenin had to break completely with his longstanding argument that a revolution that swept Tsarism aside would simply bring the bourgeoisie to power, that it would not flow over into a socialist revolution. And finally in order to lead the revolution to victory, Lenin needed to know when and how to launch an insurrection.

A large revolutionary party with strong working class roots, and with an established tradition and leadership, can survive for a period even if some of its ideas are confused or just plain wrong. However, a small organisation that does not have a clear political understanding is much more likely to go off the rails. At best it will stagnate and decay, at worst it will fragment. This is what happened to the Trotskyist movement in the 1940s. There can be no doubt that the Trotskyists were the genuine revolutionaries of the time. But they inherited from Trotsky a wrong analysis of Russia and an overblown expectation of the prospects for revolutionary upheaval after the Second World War.

Trotsky rejected the idea that the Russian revolution had been defeated by a Stalinist counter-revolution that had brought to power a bureaucratic state capitalist ruling class that exploited the Russian working class. He argued that Russia was still a workers’ state – albeit a degenerated one. He saw the Stalinist bureaucracy as an unstable layer balancing between the Russian working class and world imperialism. He predicted that the Stalinist regime would not survive the war. But instead of collapsing or being overthrown by workers, the Stalinist bureaucracy came out of the war as the second strongest power in the world and with half of Europe under its sway. New, supposedly Communist states were created in Eastern Europe without workers’ revolutions taking place. How could the Trotskyists explain this development? Their confusion and disorientation shattered them into fragments. The majority accommodated to Stalinism. Others dropped out in despair. Some refused to face up to reality and retreated into sectarian lunacy. Only a tiny minority, the founders of the International Socialist Tendency, came to terms with the fact that Russia was capitalist and imperialist.

Today, the need for clear, firm politics is just as great. Real opportunities exist to rebuild the socialist movement. In country after country over the last decade – from France to Latin America to Iraq to China to South Africa – we have seen concerted resistance to our rulers’ free market, neo-liberal agenda. But that resistance has thrown up question after question that it is vital to resolve if the movement is to be rebuilt on a sound basis – what should be the socialist approach to radical populist regimes like Chavez in Venezuela, how do we relate to Islamic radicalism, do we ever support Australian imperialism, what sort of socialist organisation do we need?

The process of ideological clarification has taken different forms throughout the history of our movement. Different political problems had to be confronted at different times. For Marx and Engels the central task was establishing the core theoretical base of the revolutionary movement. That meant writing lengthy theoretical works. These were huge books like the three volumes of Capital, three more volumes of Theories of Surplus Value and the Grundrisse. These volumes were not written to be sold on protest marches. They were not propaganda works – many of them were not even published during Marx’s lifetime. They were written to clarify Marx and Engels’ own ideas, to develop a basic analysis of capitalist society. For the pioneers of revolutionary socialism, it was necessary to establish the very foundations of the Marxist world-view, to discover and then to argue out in detail their theoretical conclusions. Of course, as I outline in a subsequent chapter, Marx and Engels did not devote all their energies to this pathbreaking theoretical work. They also played a central role in building revolutionary organisations, actively intervening in the 1848 revolutions that swept Europe and writing numerous articles and popular pamphlets aimed at a working class readership.

Pioneering theoretical work on the scale of Marx’s Capital is not the task of Socialist Alternative today. It is vital to develop Marxist theory to keep abreast of the complicated political and economic developments of world capitalism and new political and theoretical challenges are constantly being thrown up. However the core principles of Marxism are well established. We are building on the shoulders of the giants of the revolutionary tradition who have gone before us. The pathbreaking theoretical work has already been done by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and many others. The task of Socialist Alternative today is a more modest one: to critically study and absorb their conclusions, to update them to deal with a constantly changing world system and to train a cadre that can fight for these ideas.

There is a sense though in which we are pioneers. The genuine revolutionary tradition of Marxism was buried by decades of Stalinist domination of the left and by over a century of betrayals by the likes of the ALP. We have to re-establish the real Marxist tradition – that workers must emancipate themselves. The Stalinist system has collapsed but it has left a terrible legacy of confusion and cynicism about how fundamental social change can be achieved. This has been reinforced by the utter bankruptcy of social democratic parties, such as the ALP, which have repeatedly disillusioned their supporters. The challenge today is to rebuild the socialist movement from scratch and breathe life into the union movement and the broader left so that we can begin to turn the tide against our rulers. This is not simply an organisational task. Any revival of the left and the workers’ movement will throw up a mass of new questions and confusions. Marxists will have to wage a vigorous ideological struggle if we are to take the movement forward on a sound basis.

In the 1930s the Trotskyists had to fight to keep alive the most basic idea of Marxism – the centrality of the working class in the struggle for socialism – which was being buried by the triumph of Stalinism in Russia and throughout the world Communist movement. In the 1950s Tony Cliff and a small band of revolutionaries in the Socialist Review Group in Britain had to fight to maintain the real Marxist tradition when the Trotskyist movement itself started to capitulate to Stalinism. Cliff had to help update Marxist theory to account for the post-war economic boom – an event that ran counter to the Trotskyists’ predictions – and to explain the spread of Stalinism to Eastern Europe and China. He and his collaborators helped develop an analysis known as the Permanent Arms Economy to explain the boom and the theory of state capitalism to explain the nature of Russia and China. But they never retreated completely to being simply a study circle. They began to delineate the tasks of a propaganda group as they produced and sold a regular publication.

One of the consistent themes in their discussions about what to do next was an insistence on a realistic assessment of the insignificant impact they could have in the short term, the need for patience and to carry out the basic work of establishing a core of Marxists capable of carrying the ideological arguments with individuals they met in movements such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. In this way they trained a cadre who, when the breaks came in the late sixties, could recruit significant numbers. Against enormous odds they came out of the political downturn of the long boom and grew significantly during the upturn of the sixties and seventies.

Building cadre is key

If the first task of a propaganda group is ideological clarification – establishing a rock solid commitment to the theory and traditions of Marxism – then the second is to build a bigger group. By recruiting people to a propaganda group today, Socialist Alternative is laying the basis for a mass revolutionary party that can lead future workers’ struggles. But recruitment by itself is useless if the people recruited aren’t educated in Marxism, if they aren’t trained in revolutionary activity, and if they aren’t politically integrated into the organisation. What’s more, to build from a small revolutionary group into a mass party is no simple linear process, whereby the group grows by 20 per cent each year until it has tens of thousands of members. There are periods of great political advance and there are others of retreat. In the periods of advance a socialist organisation can grow extremely rapidly, indeed such growth is vital if we are to build a mass party. But if we do draw large numbers of new people in, what guarantee is there that Socialist Alternative will remain a cohered, disciplined and principled revolutionary organisation? How do we educate new fighters in Marxist theory? Won’t we be swamped?

Lenin had to face exactly this problem during the 1905 revolution in Russia. The revolutionary upsurge saw tens of thousands of workers move towards the small Bolshevik nucleus. Lenin not only argued that it was vital to draw in these new people; he counted on the “solid core of social democrats” – the party’s cadre – to influence, educate and train the new recruits. And he counted on the strength and training of this cadre to prevent the party’s politics and traditions being overwhelmed and forgotten.

We Bolsheviks…have demanded class consciousness from those joining the party, we have insisted on the tremendous importance of continuity in the party’s development, we have preached discipline and demanded that every party member be trained in one or other of the party organisations…[i].

This cadre, this “solid core”, is just as important in times of retreat, when workers suffer setbacks. In order to hold a revolutionary organisation together in times of defeat theory is even more paramount. When the going is tough a much higher level of theoretical agreement is necessary to hold a propaganda group together because a small group without roots in the working class is inherently more unstable than a mass party. You can’t survive on the basis of a few slogans, you need a more sophisticated analysis. The cadre has to be steeled. That means a high degree of political demarcation from those on the left who don’t agree with any aspect of Marxism. There can be no compromises, no concessions to soft left ideas that fudge key political questions. However a larger organisation in periods when the struggle is surging forward can be more open. It can recruit on the basis of agreement on a few central slogans.

Today socialists are operating in a frustrating and complicated political period. There is little support for the neo-liberal economic agenda that is being constantly rammed down our throats; little support for the US’s imperialist adventures. When serious forces, such as the trade union leaders, give workers and students a chance to demonstrate their discontent – at the union rallies against the IR laws and at the anti-war protests in 2003 – they do so in unparalleled numbers. Yet there is no concerted ongoing opposition. Neither the union leaders, the ALP nor the Greens are prepared to unleash a challenge to the ruling class’s agenda. This leads to pessimism about the possibility of real change. If you don’t have a clear analysis of the political situation, you can succumb to impressionistic moods and miss out on the significant opportunities to build a revolutionary organisation that exist today. There are important opportunities to grow, but growth won’t happen automatically. It is not plain sailing. Having a cadre that is clear on the nature of the political period and how to respond to make the most of the opportunities is decisive if the organisation is to go forward.

So building a propaganda group involves more than just recruiting new people, it also involves developing them into revolutionary cadre. What does this mean? The newer members, comrades who have only been in the group a year or two, have to be trained in the basics of Marxism. But Marxism doesn’t just reside in books. For those ideas to become a material force they have to be embodied in individuals, they have to take an organisational form. If the organisation is to survive and grow, its members have to be able to argue socialist ideas to uncommitted people, to convince them that they should become active revolutionaries. Political education serves little purpose if it is separated from building a socialist organisation. There is no point being an expert on the Marxist theory of imperialism if you do nothing to build a revolutionary organisation today. Indeed one of the best tests of whether a comrade understands a particular area of Marxist politics is having to argue that position with people outside the organisation.

But there is more to being a cadre than understanding Marxist politics and being able to argue for those ideas. Cadre must be able to scientifically evaluate the development of the class struggle and society generally, in order to work out how to take advantage of these developments. They must understand and be able to carry out the mechanics of building the organisation. They must understand the tactics: the various twists and turns that a propaganda group has to go through to build a mass party. Such a cadre is not trained overnight. Nor are they trained without hard work, without an intense effort in theoretical education and in the practical tasks of building a socialist organisation. But without the development and continual expansion of that layer of cadre, a revolutionary organisation builds on sand.

Identifying your audience

The next question that arises for a propaganda group is: at whom should it aim its ideas? What is its audience? It can’t for the present win the masses, but who can it win? Unless a propaganda group can answer this question, then it is yet again on the road to oblivion. It is not enough to have formally correct but abstract ideas – to understand everything in Marx’s Capital. Marxists must understand how to concretely apply those ideas. They have to be able to answer the central political question: what do we do next?

Identifying an audience, creating a periphery around your organisation for Marxist politics, is not an easy task. An audience is not a static body of people. It changes depending on political circumstances, the depth of the crisis in society, the ebbs and flows of the class struggle and the size of the propaganda group. As well, it is not just a question of saying that at this particular moment, this specific group of people are our audience. You then have to be able to concretely work out how to relate to them, to find the issues that will give you an “in”, to patiently and consistently debate the questions that have a cutting edge with these people.

Traditionally Marxist propaganda groups had a certain guide as to their audience: they tried to relate to the vanguard – the most politically conscious section of the working class and the already established left-wing forces. So when Marx and Engels published their most important propaganda work, The Communist Manifesto, they were not aiming it at the mass of workers, but at those who already considered themselves communists. Marx and Engels polemicised against the erroneous conceptions of these early socialists – their conspiratorial methods, their utopianism, their elitism – and tried to win a minority to their world view. Similarly, after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, when Lenin established a new Communist International (the Comintern), he won his first supporters from the existing socialist movement. The small bands of supporters of the Russian Revolution aimed their fire at the reformist parties of the Second Socialist International – the parties that had betrayed the working class by their support for their own ruling classes in World War I. The Bolsheviks hoped to win over cadres from the left wing of these reformist parties. Only when they had regrouped these forces could they appeal to the broader unorganised masses.

Again, when the Trotskyists were expelled from the Stalinised Communist parties in the late 1920s, they did not immediately turn their backs on the CPs. The CPs still had the support of the most class-conscious workers. The small Trotskyist groups had to win over some of the better elements in the CPs. They had to pound away arguing about what was wrong with Comintern policies. That was how they recruited their initial cadre. To attempt to jump over this stage, to appeal directly to people not involved in socialist politics, would have led nowhere. For the reality is that when such people begin to move politically, they look for leadership to the already existing vanguard. Marxists had to implant themselves in that vanguard if they hoped to lead the masses in the future. Those revolutionaries in the early 1930s who tried to force the pace artificially, to jump over the necessary stage of political development, came to grief. Some of them ignored the Communist parties and their entire membership. They said you had to build among workers who had not been infected by the virus of Stalinism. They were quickly demoralised and collapsed. Others, declaring that it was a sectarian and conservative course just to win over individuals or groups of people from the CPs and hence train a cadre, argued for mass work to build a new party. They too got nowhere and began to retreat from Marxist principles in the direction of opportunism as they chased an illusory audience for their mass work.

However, this traditional approach for building a propaganda group presents today’s revolutionaries with a serious problem. There has been no organised political vanguard in any meaningful sense in Australia or in most other advanced capitalist countries since the 1970s. There is no mass organisation of radicals of any description, nor any significant current of politicised workers that revolutionaries can orient to. There are, of course, in every workplace a few workers who are active in the union or more left wing than most workers. But they do not form an organised layer that revolutionaries can relate to on an ongoing basis.

Nor are there ongoing campaigns that we can relate to that are radicalising and organising into activity significant bodies of people. On issue after issue over the last decade or more people have been shaken up politically and inspired to take action, whether it be the union rallies against WorkChoices, the protests against the war on Lebanon, Pauline Hanson, the Maritime Union dispute, demonstrations in support of refugees or the enormous protests against the Iraq war in 2003. However, by and large these have not led to the emergence of ongoing organised movements that provided a significant audience for socialists. The most important – but short-lived – exception to this pattern was the anti-capitalist movement that developed amongst a layer of young people in the wake of the Seattle protest against the World Trade Organisation in 1999 and the blockade of the World Economic Forum at Melbourne’s Crown Casino in 2000. For about 18 months the anti-capitalist movement provided Marxists with a concentrated audience of people looking for an alternative to capitalism. It opened up the possibility of quite rapid growth.

When such movements do develop it is vital for socialists to quickly seize the opportunity and to throw themselves into them. When there is a layer of people being radicalised around a particular issue, revolutionaries have to relate in a practical way to that issue or struggle. While socialist propaganda groups will rarely be in a position to lead major struggles, when these struggles do occur, socialists can’t just stand on the sidelines preaching the general ideas of socialism. They have to be able to relate those ideas to the specific issue. Socialists have to be able to argue a strategy for winning the struggle, to put forward concrete proposals that point the way forward. They have to draw out the lessons at all stages of the struggle, to point out the role of the police, the media, parliament, the ALP, the trade union officials and so on. Most importantly, a propaganda group must be able to link the particular issue, whether it is WorkChoices, the war in Iraq or cuts to education, to broader questions such as the capitalists’ neo-liberal agenda, the nature of imperialism, the role of the working class and how we can change society. But let’s be clear, most of the time intervention by a propaganda group means intervening in political debates that occur either in society as a whole, or among the milieu in which they are working. Whether or not the group is involved in a specific campaign, the discussions the group needs to have with other activists, if they are to influence them in a socialist direction, have to go a long way beyond just campaign tactics and strategy.

The fact that there is no organised working class vanguard or cohered body of radical activists or movements that attract ongoing, large-scale support does not mean that there is not a significant audience of people open to socialist arguments. The relentless ruling class offensive against workers, the never- ending “war on terror”, the continual attacks on democratic rights and the failure of the ALP and union leaders to offer any concerted resistance continually throw up an audience of people looking for an alternative to twenty-first century capitalism. But by and large these are scattered individuals who are relatively new to political activism and have little knowledge of Marxist ideas.

Relating to students – a milieu to work in

The long term aim of a small revolutionary organisation is to get bigger – and primarily, to have an influence in the working class. Yet the leap between the present and the future is a continuing source of debate among socialists. It seems common sense that, if we think only the working class can lead a revolution, then we should build among workers. So why does Socialist Alternative put considerable effort into building among students, and what has that to do with the leap from the isolation of a small group to the influence of a mass workers’ party? The experience of working class militants in surviving in the workplace – and the need to involve a majority of the workforce in any successful industrial activity – makes them more practical than students. If they have been involved in any political activity as workers, it will most likely have been through their union, an organisation of some size and strength, which has the potential to deliver action. A propaganda group simply can’t do that and as a consequence will not seem serious in comparison to a union. But because often a small minority among students can carry out meaningful activity – hold a lively protest or occupation or initiate a campaign – quite small groups of socialists can realistically play a leading role and be taken more seriously.

For one thing, they can organise groups of students to do much more than is possible in a similar situation at work. Just think of the regular information stalls and club meetings socialists can hold on campus and the regular activist meetings to be involved in. For these reasons a socialist intervention can have more impact. But as well socialists can more easily find on campus an audience that can be won over on the basis of an intellectual argument, rather than on the basis of what they can deliver. That is why for any propaganda group a milieu of student activists is one of the best places to gain the vital experience they need and help to orient the group away from sectarian abstention.

Moreover students can play a role in social upheaval, and they can genuinely fight for their rights. Their volatility can mean that after periods of calm, they may be the first to burst into rebellion. In the sixties they took the lead in country after country, drawing workers in behind them.[ii] So student struggles are not some Mickey Mouse affair for revolutionaries to “practise” on. Socialists can gain invaluable experience and train a cadre capable of leading important struggles on the campuses. So Socialist Alternative doesn’t relate to students because students are more worthy or more left wing than workers. We certainly don’t think they can lead a future revolution – but they can play an important part in social upheaval. Students’ struggles and concerns are legitimate and can play a role in radicalising many students in the here and now. Because of their generally different lifestyle and class position from workers, especially older workers with family responsibilities, perhaps a mortgage and/or a career, students are more likely to take seriously a small group of socialists with not much more than their ideas to offer.

The argument for relating to students does not in any way imply that all students are likely to be interested in left-wing politics. It is certainly not the case that because they are more “educated”, students are likely to be more radical. Actually, the main aim of education is to train people to work for industry and to carry out technical tasks, and so for the most part, students will be taught, and will accept, some variant of the dominant ideology of capitalism. However, there is an inbuilt contradiction in the bosses’ need for education. If you want creative workers, you have to allow a certain amount of debate and critical thought. During those few years of tertiary study, students deal in ideas in a way that most other groups in society do not. The rhetoric of academic freedom and exploration clashes with the reality of an increasingly corporatised education system. The gap between how the world is, and how it ought to be means that a minority of students will be interested in discussing and questioning ideas.

The nature of student life provides opportunities for small groups of revolutionaries. If a propaganda group is to be able to learn to make arguments that are not purely abstract, it needs a “milieu” in which to work, where its members have to answer people’s arguments, convince others to get involved in activity, of the best way to win a campaign etc. Socialists have to learn to lead, i.e. how to convince others of ideas they initially don’t totally agree with. All small socialist groups can have tendencies to abstract propagandism. That pulls them away from relating to peoples’ real concerns. But consciously looking for ways to interact with others we may be able to influence on an ongoing basis is one way to minimise this danger. The important phrase here is others we may be able to influence. An individual socialist in a workplace – up against a union bureaucracy that can produce thousands of leaflets, get on the evening news, demand that other unions do this or that – will have a hard time convincing her fellow workers that a socialist group of a few hundred or a few thousand, even if they were all a trade unionists, knows how to better run a strike. This is not an argument against socialists trying to lead at work. Even if they can only recruit the occasional individual, steady union work and leading the occasional industrial action adds to the general knowledge and experience of the organisation. It helps build a layer of members who have some feel for how to make arguments relevant in unions. It is simply that union activism cannot be the central focus for building a propaganda group.

Students relating to workers

Won’t a group with a large number of student or ex-student members be incapable of relating to workers when it’s needed? It’s true that such a group can develop ways of doing things which might seem strange to some blue-collar workers. However, this is much less the case than in the past. Before the massive expansion of tertiary education in the post World War II boom, students were an elite, with a completely different background, lifestyle and expectations from workers. In Australia many of them supported reactionary movements, for example acting as strikebreakers in struggles like the 1917 NSW general strike and backing fascism in the 1930s. However, even then, for all the reasons above, a minority were pulled towards socialism. And those small numbers could provide an important nucleus for socialist organisations which were to lead masses of workers. The Bolsheviks in Russia had many students who were recruited to Marxism. Just think of the background of leading figures such as Lenin, Trotsky, Krupskaya and others, and people like Rosa Luxemburg in Germany or Antonio Gramsci in Italy. They had all become socialists while students.

When workers are involved in mass struggle, they can become open to new ideas on a rapidly expanding scale. Workers can take revolutionary ideas more seriously than previously simply because they realise they need new ideas to win their struggles. But very importantly, it depends on whether there is a serious organisation on offer. With even some hundreds of students in a single city, let alone thousands, an organisation could intervene effectively to offer strike support and ideological argument. The very process of this kind of work would develop and change the existing members, who would have to learn to be sensitive to workers’ needs, ideas and experiences in order to intervene. Some of this can be learned before an upswing in struggle, but it cannot be seriously tested in the absence of serious mass, radical struggles.

The importance of a propaganda routine

Because there is no single issue that is radicalising large numbers of people, socialists have to be able to relate to people on a range of questions. We have to be able to take up the specific issues that they are concerned about and explain how they fit into a Marxist analysis of what’s wrong with the world. We have to be able to talk to them about everything from the growing gap between rich and poor, the war in Afghanistan or the way to defeat WorkChoices to more general questions like why the working class can change society, why Russia wasn’t socialist and the way forward for socialists today. To intersect with all these scattered individuals, revolutionaries need a high profile.

That’s why we in Socialist Alternative put great emphasis on doing regular information stalls, where we sell our magazine Socialist Alternative, in city streets and on university campuses. We make a concerted mobilisation for virtually all demonstrations, whether large or small. On the demonstrations we have information stalls, sell our magazine and march as a contingent – a Red Bloc – made up of our members and supporters. At the end of the demonstration we usually have a well-advertised debrief meeting where we discuss the way forward for the particular campaign and debate out whatever controversial issues have arisen. All our major branches hold well-advertised regular meetings, and our clubs on campuses hold regular forums.

We have established a regular propaganda routine that helps us to intersect with these scattered individuals and ensures that we actually follow them up, talk to them personally to try to convince them to get active as a socialist, and invite them to our branch meetings and other events and demonstrations. A stable propaganda routine of regular magazine sales and branch meetings, campus work and following up people we meet, forces us to look outwards, to address people beyond our ranks, people who only agree with some of our arguments. It helps prevent the organisation from becoming inward-looking. It keeps the group active, and provides a discipline that can help ward off passivity. Of course, a propaganda routine is no guarantee against complacency. Routine can easily become routinism. That is why revolutionaries must be ready to break and adapt their established routine to meet changed conditions, to make new interventions. Our audience can change quickly as the political climate changes. Socialists won’t always be appealing to scattered individuals. Flexibility is key. But without a stable propaganda routine, without regular branch meetings and sales of a publication, without the systematic following up of potential supporters, a socialist organisation will be in no position to take advantage of opportunities that do open up.

For well over two decades, workers’ living standards and trade union rights have been under relentless attack, under both Liberal and Labor governments, and there is no sign of the bosses’ offensive letting up. When you add to this the ever-looming environmental crisis and the prospect of decade after decade of brutal imperialist war, you can understand why there is growing unease among millions of workers and students. Yet at the same time official politics continues its march to the right and the rich and powerful seem never satiated. And still we are told we are living through boom years.

We can not predict how and when these growing tensions will come to a head. However, we can be confident that at some point there will be a major revival in working class struggle. The decisive struggles of the future will pose both major opportunities and difficulties for socialists. The unfolding of the struggle will be complicated and tortuous. Nothing will be straightforward. To make the most of these challenges, we have to prepare today by deepening our political understanding, by testing ourselves, by confronting the tasks of the moment. One of the most important tasks of the moment is to grow. To the extent that socialists can grow now, when furious struggles are not raging, we will be better placed to intervene and offer an alternative when workers and students are on the move. And it is important to emphasise that there are opportunities to grow today, not just when there are mass demonstrations on the streets over WorkChoices or the war in Iraq but in the quieter patches in between.

It is also important to be clear that the growth of a propaganda group is only in part determined by the external political environment. Short of a mass radicalisation, socialists will not recruit hand over fist, but a propaganda group can make headway against the pace of events. All sorts of internal factors – the coherence of the group, the clarity of the group’s perspectives and the experience and confidence of the members – can be just as important in recruiting the next ten people as the ebbs and flows of the class struggle.

To summarise

So let’s summarise the central tasks of a propaganda group. The first is political clarity: only by deepening their political understanding can Marxists lay a sound foundation for the future. Second, a propaganda group has to aim to grow in size and at the same time develop a layer of members – a cadre – that understands Marxist ideas and is able to apply those ideas in the specific circumstances of today. For a propaganda group putting those ideas into practice means identifying an audience for Marxism, establishing how to relate to that audience, and finally doing the detailed work – organising and carrying out routine propaganda work and not-so-routine interventions in the debates and struggles that break out – that is necessary to recruit new forces.

Finally socialists cannot jump over the necessary stages of the development they have to go through. In the present situation in Australia, and given the length of experience of the majority of its members, Socialist Alternative cannot be anything like the Bolsheviks in 1917 or the Communist Party in the 1930s. They had been through decades of major political and social crises, not just a few years in a period of a low level of struggle. Those decades of mass struggle challenged them in a way that socialists in Australia today have not yet experienced. A revolutionary organisation is steeled in significant ideological debates and major struggles. We cannot conjure these up.

This article first appeared in Socialist Alternative in January 2008.

Chapter 1 – The nature and tasks of a socialist propaganda group

[i] V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 10, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1978, p31.

[ii] See Mick Armstrong, 1,2,3, What Are We Fighting For? The Australian student movement from its origins to the 1970s, Socialist Alternative, Melbourne, 2001.



Comment from Ewen Kloas
Time December 29, 2011 at 7:48 pm

Hi John,
My name is Ewen, I am a member of Socialist Alliance in Melbourne.
I am a regular reader of your daily posts and look forward to all of them.
Todays post I enjoyed and it raised in me the question I always bring up with other members. Why can’t all our small left wing socialist orgaisations merge together to form a large party with some force. I always get the answer that we all have conflicting views and indifferences. I can understand that, but wouldn’t it be great if we all could. What is your opinion?
Keep up the good work mate, you’re a great read and I admire your devotion.


Comment from Shane H
Time December 30, 2011 at 11:52 am


Some nice work. Some of my last discussions in the DSP was around these important distinctions.

I think it would have been better to define the Australia Marxist tradition than to focus so much on Russian history for eg Trotskyists for much of Aust history assumed that you needed to work in the ALP but few think this now.

Ewen points at another issue and that’s the phenomena of competing propaganda groups differentiated on historical questions as above for eg the nature of the (now former) USSR. Surely what unites the tiny number of Revolutionaries in Australia esp compared to the mainstream) is more important than these differences – and yet – we have the DSP split over the Alliance and SAlt itself part of a 3-way(?) Split in the IS tradition.

Comment from John
Time December 30, 2011 at 3:19 pm

Socialist Alternative arose out of a group expelled from the ISO over perspectives. These differences continue, with overlays to do with how to relate to the world outside, including the ALP. To me these issues should be debated out in one organisation since we share the same basic politics and analysis – socialism from below, state capitalism, the permanent arms economy etc. My enemy is the bourgeoisie and its politicians, not people who share the same politics.

I think the point about Russian and other history is to show the centrality of a vanguard party which becomes a mass revolutionary workers’ party in the success or otherwise of a democratic and socialist revolution. That is what we in Socialist Alternative are trying to build. We are a long long way from that.

I’ll come back to Ewen’s point later on.

Comment from Jack Howard
Time December 30, 2011 at 5:41 pm

A thorough and explanatory article, John, that very much outlines the tasks and challenges faced by far left groups in countries such as Australia today. I would, however, be interested to know your thoughts on this article written by the late Bob Gould, who was critical of your organization’s rather dogmatic orientation towards the status of propaganda group, as well as the rather simplistic misreadings of the history of Marxist groups that it produced:

Comment from Shane H
Time December 30, 2011 at 6:05 pm

Yeah I’m not saying Russian history is unimportant but given how it worked out its not a great as for a vanguard party – and yes I know one doesn’t lead to the other but that opens another can of worms. I guess I was struck with lack of Australian history. If the role of a discussion circle is to establish a Marxist tradition then some discussion of that process in Australia would surely be more relevant than Russia circa 1920.

Comment from John
Time December 30, 2011 at 7:16 pm

You may be right Shane about more on Australian history. But I think looking to the one successful workers’ revolution (albeit destroyed by Stalin and the social forces he represented) holds important lessons for socialists in Australia today. The history in Australia of the CPA growing from a few hundred to a few thousand as a result of the Depression and resistance is one we refer to. I think for the sort of person interested in socialist politics the rise of Stalinism is an important question and one we in Socialist Alternative have a valid explanation for and of. Entryism? A tactic, and one not appropriate now or as far as I can tell for much of the past few decades in Australia. I’d say the same about unity of far left groups with very different visions of socialism.

Comment from John
Time December 30, 2011 at 7:17 pm

Thanks, I’ll have a look Jack. It might be a few days before I get back to you.

Comment from Shane H
Time December 31, 2011 at 1:36 pm

OYeah I’m not saying Russian history is unimportant but given how it worked out its not a grat as for a vanguard party – and yes I know one doesn’t lead to the other but that opens another can of worms. I guess I was struck with lack of Australian history. If the role of a discussion circle is to establish a Marxist tradition then some discussion of that process in Australia would surely be more relevant than Russia circa 1920.

Comment from Shane H
Time January 1, 2012 at 10:21 am

Sorry about the repeat post- still getting used to posting from phone.

I don’t think they thought of entrism as a tactic. They focused on the ALP because they thought that’s where the majority of workers – rightly or wrongly from a Marxist perspective – looked for leadership and where they would have to find an audience for their ideas – like it or not. Same might apply to Greens today.

Same for Trotsky his first instinct was to join (not enter) existing Communist parties as these were where most advanced workers were oriented. When this failed he set up a new International and unwittingly sowed the seeds of the sort of micro-sects that we see today.

Happy new year

Comment from Shane H
Time January 1, 2012 at 10:28 am

As to the ‘nature’ of the (former) Soviet Union its an important question (for revn socialists – or has been) u and serves as a means of differentiating competing groups.

The question is what are the important questions for the working class (or its vanguard if you like that language) and progressive middle class – and what do we have to learn and to teach.

Comment from John
Time January 1, 2012 at 7:52 pm

Ewen, thanks for the compliments. It is good to get positive feedback about the blog. On the question of merging, I don’t think we would ever rule it out. It is a question of what takes building a revolutionary socialist organisation forward in these difficult times; a revolutionary socialist organisation committed to socialism from below. The current period isn’t one in which I and many others judge merging to be that solution or part of that solution. In fact in my view the ‘merged entity’ Socialist Alliance is a step back from that process. Comradely regards, John.

Comment from John
Time January 2, 2012 at 9:54 am

The nature of the USSR, China, North Korea, Cuba etc are important because they underpin different visions of socialism. We are after all socialists and so understanding what we mean by socialism ad what we are actually fighting for is very important. When the class moves these distinctions will be important.

I don’t think the militant section or wanna be or non-conscious militant section of the working class is moving to the Greens, and if socialists are moving in there they will and if the BDS issue in NSW is any guide will cop a hiding.

What are the concerns of ordinary workers? Wages, jobs, health, education, the carbon tax etc. I don’t see the Greens offering anything different to Labor on these. In fact I see them as more committed neoliberals with the carbon tax than Labor.

That doesn’t mean because we might have a better line on wages, jobs etc that workers will flock to us. In the current political climate we just have to build steadily, develop our cadre and make sure were are positioned for the next upsurge in working class activity if we can.

Comment from Ewen Kloas
Time January 4, 2012 at 12:23 am

Maybe I shouldn’t have put up the notion of a merger between all our movements and organisations now I think about it. I am only new to this and learning more and more as I study the politics of today and historically. My knowledge isn’t as deep as you guys. I attend a lot of the rallies in Melbourne and was present at the Occupy sites and rallies. The reason I raised the point in my first post was my observation of the competition between the different groups vying for interested and curious public for their attention. This competition disturbs me which is why I ask; should we all need to come together in some way on a common ground as socialists to fight and campaign on issues. It cannot be a good look and confuse new comers to see bickering amongst us about who is right or wrong in our ideals.
The Occupy movement was a great example of how we could be on common ground as we all seemed to get along and could talk freely at the general assemblies. How can, or is it possible to drive our energy and resources more cooperatively. I do understand why we have our differences but again, could we work together some way? It’s a nagging point that keeps gnawing at me John.

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