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John Passant

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December 2012



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What kind of party do we need?

One of the most pressing – and controversial – questions to face socialists over the decades is how they should organize together. Ahmed Shawki is the editor of the International Socialist Review, author of the book Black Liberation and Socialism and member of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) in the US since its founding in 1977.

He spoke on the question of revolutionary organization at the Socialism 2006 conference in New York City. This speech first appeared in the June 30, 2006, issue of Socialist Worker US and was reprinted in December 2011.

I came across this while reading some of the US Socialist Worker highlights for 2012. Shawki’s discussion of Lenin’s What is to be done? can be updated in light of Lars Lih’s groundbreaking work on this. Here is a link to a review of Lih’s work.


WHAT I want to discuss is what kind of party we want, and here, I’m not talking about a party other than a socialist party and an organization seeking to become a party, like the ISO. I’m not here to deal with the so-called opposition in this country–the Democrats or any such formation.

This is meant to be a discussion of some of the theory and ideas and traditions that lie behind our thinking as socialists and Marxists of what kind of organizational norms and organizations we need to develop to be the most effective we can possibly be in the fight against this system and the fight against capitalism. What kind of norms and political positions such a party should take, how it should be organized and the like.

I believe that there are three reasons that this question is important. The first is to explain some of the historical background that lies behind the approach we take in building organization.

Second, because we also have to face reality and say that the kind of party we want today was once wanted by much larger sections of the left and is no longer part of their outlook.

We have to have some explanation as to what happened to the radicalization the last time, and what ideas flow out of the defeated period of radicalization. There was a crescendo, an impasse, and then a decline and a stepping back of the left, with a number of ideas coming into prominence that reject the idea of political organization or political party. This is a crisis that still plagues sections of the revolutionary left today.

Thirdly, the question of what kind of party to build today is taking on particular forms internationally and, I believe, has spilled over into this country. There is now a discussion among sections of the revolutionary left internationally of creating broad, anti-capitalist parties as one strategy, and of contending for electoral advances as a major focus of energy. There are a number of options like that which I think we need to take some stock of.

It’s a broad topic, and of course, it’s main importance is to promote the discussion and understanding of what we’re trying to do in the United States–what its problems are and what its potential development is.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

FIRST, ON the question of political parties and political representation. Ever since the birth of the Marxist wing of the socialist movement, though not exclusively the Marxist wing, there has been a premium placed on the question of the political representation of the working class.

If you read the earliest writings of Marx and Engels and the early socialists, the question arises–that we need our own political representation. The capitalist class, the old feudal classes all have theirs. We need a way to politically represent ourselves.

That was the initial assumption of all Marxists–the need to have a political representation of the working class. Broadly speaking, the view of the party was of an all-encompassing working- class party, which brought together different factions, different groupings of the working-class movement.

In part, this is because the early working-class movement was not dominated with one single political ideology. People may have read that at one stage, Karl Marx said I am not a Marxist. That was to reject some would-be followers who interpreted his views in a particular way, and created political organizations that had nothing to do, as Marx and Engels saw it, with the direction they wanted the movement to go.

Marx himself had placed some emphasis on the attempt to build political organization. But you were talking about a period of the rise of capitalist social relations, and therefore, in large part, the bulk of Marx’s own personal activity lay in developing theory rather than political organization.

Engels participated much more effectively in the construction of the Second International and played a formative role in the construction of what was to be the model socialist organization of the day–the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), an organization that produced, after a period of illegality, dozens of newspapers, a mass membership, elected officials. The SPD was led by a man called Karl Kautsky who was described at the time as the Pope of Marxism–that was supposed to be a good thing as opposed a negative thing.

You have political organizations that saw themselves as representing the entirety of the working class, which contended for political office, had political representation, led the trade unions and many of the civic associations. This is the rise of the early social-democratic party–right across Europe, a massive phenomenon. Different countries, different strengths, other countries, certain weaknesses–but this was the model of socialist organization, and with it, you had the appearance of a united socialist movement internationally, under the Second International.

Many people who look back at this and think that Lenin was an early heretic. They look at the short pamphlet Lenin wrote called What Is to Be Done? and say that this is the epitome of everything that’s wrong with Leninism–pointing to the fact that instead of the broad model of organization, Lenin insisted on professional party organization, a strict hierarchy and centralism, although when possible, the democratic component being instituted.

The reality is much different. The reality is that Lenin’s views on the party in the first instance were highly conditional to the specific circumstances under which socialists were operating in Russia. Thus, at the formative conference of the Russian Social Democratic Party in 1898, something like two-thirds of the delegates were arrested by the police. So the conditions upon which you organize an open democratic party are somewhat different than they would be in others.

What people characterize as Leninism was conditional to illegal conditions inside Russia. The main difference was conditional on the objective circumstances Lenin saw, and those should not be seen as Leninism–illegality, professional revolutionism, that only the committee above another committee can instruct what people should do.

I’m not saying that Lenin was identical to Kautsky. You can go back and read Kautsky, for example, where he says clearly in the period of the late 1800s that the German Social Democratic Party is a revolutionary party, but not a revolution-making party. In other words, we’re a party that seeks the transformation of society, but we’re not about to make a revolution.

Lenin insisted always on the revolutionary character of the Bolsheviks, in part because they operated under Tsarism and in part because of events after the writing of What Is To Be Done?

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE CRITICAL event that divides out the socialist movement and has bearing on the question of organization is, of course, the First World War. On August 4, 1914, the main pillar of social democracy, the German SPD, votes for war credits, with the exception of Karl Leibknecht, and the rest of the socialist movement in other countries follows suit.

At this point, Lenin begins to develop ideas about organization which I think are much more important and relevant to us–focused not on the question of illegality and professional revolutionism and so on.

Instead, he focuses on the idea that there is a built-in contradiction between building a political organization that combats capitalism and one that from the outset represents the entire working class.

He concludes that you have to begin by grouping together militants and activists–because we’re not talking here about commentators and writers, but people who are involved in the actual struggle against capitalism–into a party that can lead politically other sections of the working-class movement through the ebbs and flow of the working-class struggle.

He used the term vanguard for this, to mean people who are in advance in consciousness–that is, who are enemies of capitalism, rather than half opposed and half accepting. This isn’t an insult–it’s the reality for most people, that they hate the system, but don’t know what else you can put in its place.

The point was how to put together a political organization that in reality represented the best fighters of the working-class movement.

That idea became enshrined into the history of the revolutionary movement for one reason–it wasn’t Lenin’s writings so much as Lenin’s doing. The Russian Revolution was the first successful revolution. In terrible conditions, it brought a weak working-class movement to power, and it laid open the question of working-class power internationally.

And from that experience, the main principles of working-class organization were codified, and an attempt was made to generalize these internationally.

The problem begins not there, but with the defeat of the Russian Revolution. Because with the defeat of the Russian Revolution, instead of codifying the actual real experiences of both Russia and an understanding of the particular national conditions of different movements, which Lenin always insisted on, what’s codified is an idea of a world centralized party dominated by the Central Committee and the Politburo of the USSR, under which function the central committees of other countries, and that’s the world movement of socialism.

In Lenin’s day, you had the Bolshevik Party taking a position hostile to the workers’ councils when they first arose in 1905–there’s a revolution outside of the Bolshevik Party, they’re suspicious of it, they say we don’t support it, and then they have to switch.

In other words, the vanguard isn’t always right. That’s an idea that develops later–that all thought comes out of the Comintern.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

WHY IS all this relevant? Because that became the understanding internationally of what it meant to build a revolutionary socialist or communist party. It became the principle model about which the revolutionary left that re-emerged in the 1960s debated and from which different elements were taken.

A small minority of the movement–we would argue, in large part, the Trotskyist elements in the movement, but not solely the Trotskyist elements–began to look toward the original Lenin rather than the Stalinized Lenin for the ideas of the party.

In my estimation and in the estimation of our tendency, the experience of the revolutionary left of the 1960s took years to sort through what I briefly sketched out.

Out of the initial upsurge, many people took wholesale some of the ideas of Stalinized Leninism and applied them. It led to all kinds of peculiarities, not the least of which was the cult of personality, most obviously in the Stalinist movement and in the Mao-influenced section of the revolutionary movement.

You had a situation in which revolutionary parties emerged quite differently from the situation I described earlier. By and large, in most of the Western countries in which the revolutionary left developed, it didn’t emerge out of a mass workers’ movement that represented the working class, but largely among elements wholly outside the existing organized working-class movement.

That’s different from country to country. In the United States, you had one of the most extreme divorces between socialists and the working-class movement. In some countries like Britain and other places, there wasn’t the same kind of distorting impact.

But internationally, you had the whole movement dealing with the fact that, first of all, the authentic Marxist tradition on the question of organization had been Stalinized and distorted by the experience of Stalinism, but also with reality of capitalism.

That is, it wasn’t simply that the left had the wrong idea, and that’s why it screwed up in the 1960s and ’70s. It inherited the ideas that came before them and was trying to work its way through them, but it’s also the case that capitalism fought back, and the left was unable to reestablish the relationship with a mass working-class movement in time.

Today, there is an idea that the construction of a socialist organization is in itself a flawed project. In short, it’s been there, done that–we tried it in the 1960s and ’70s, and this model of organization doesn’t work.

I think that there’s a reaction that we can sometimes have to say you just did it wrong–which is a good answer to a been-there-done-that kind of remark.

But I think the more sophisticated answer would be that not only did the left in the 1960s inherit models of organization from the past, but it was itself dislodged from its historic role and placed outside of the working-class movement. And this is despite valiant efforts of many sections of the left to reconnect with the working class, which should be applauded, not derided.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

I WANT to start to draw a number of conclusions from what I laid out.

First, in the 1960s, you had the dominance internationally of the left by big Communist Parties and big social-democratic parties–that was what was seen as the opposition to capitalism. We might have said that this wasn’t the kind of opposition we would organize, it doesn’t do anything right, but those organizations were the main pillars of opposition.

Today, part of the weakness of the left is that those organizations don’t exist as organizations that resist capitalism.

Social democracy exists, but basically, around the world, it has adopted neoliberalism and pro-capitalism outright as its program. The Communist Parties don’t exist as the force that they once did, which means that in communities, in neighborhoods, in particular struggles, a number of people who were there before aren’t there now.

This leads to a conclusion that there is a space politically for a party that is not revolutionary–that doesn’t have the overthrow of capitalism as its aim. There is a political vacuum that exists internationally, which people are seeking to fill. But I would suggest that it isn’t automatic that it would be filled in the manner that people seek to fill it.

It’s one thing to say that social democracy has moved right and adopted neoliberalism, and Stalinism has largely disappeared organizationally, and in that space, we can build a broad, anticapitalist, but not necessarily revolutionary, movement. That is being proposed in a number of situations, and I believe it’s an argument that we need to be friendly toward, because it’s people trying to regroup forces opposed to the system.

But it isn’t clear to me at all on an international scale what this means in reality. The main activists involved in this kind of project internationally are themselves members of revolutionary organizations, or are largely inspired by the project of building a revolutionary organization against capitalism.

The goal is to try to capture some of the dissension and the anger that exists against the system, but which is unorganized. Nobody should denigrate this opposition outside the system that’s unorganized.

But I believe that in terms of an understanding of what it means to build organization, the main thing that’s been lost is how you actually begin the process of the retraining, reeducating and re-launching of a revolutionary cadre, no matter what the organizational structure. How do you take a new generation of people and transform them from isolated or individual militants against the system to what is a self-conscious revolutionary cadre.

That really is the main task that we see the ISO as undertaking. The road to get from where we are now and where we want to get is the multimillion-dollar question. What kind of party do we want? I could have answered at the beginning–we want a revolutionary party of some size rooted in the working class that’s multiracial, multi-ethnic and geared to the conquest of state power and internationally.

The problem is that this isn’t what we are now, and we have to look at the rest of the left in this country and internationally and say truthfully what our numbers and our strengths are collectively. It is not the case that we are at the point where we’re talking about a mass party.

Therefore, the real question is how you get from here to there. That’s the most difficult thing to do, because there’s not just one path to getting there, but having said that, not all the paths are of equal value.

For example, in my estimation, there isn’t much space for a broad, anti-capitalist party in the United States. On the other hand, in Brazil, there is space for a large anti-capitalist, socialist party that has been expelled from the Workers Party (PT).

The experience there is that the best of the Brazilian left builds the PT and is now finding that its aspirations, hopes and ambitions are being opposed by the leadership of the party it created. They’re being expelled, and at the moment, the main party formed out of that expulsion is polling anywhere from 7 to 11 percent against Lula in the polls. So there’s not only a space for that kind of organization, but a reality.

The problem for us in this country is that we don’t have that kind of left. Everybody talks about regroupment of the left, but the reality of who that left is, what it would actually mean to regroup, whether you could actually gain forward momentum, or if you would be mired in a series of endless discussions and debates–these are some of the questions that affect us.

We believe that the main task for us is to be sure as an organization that we are involved and develop links and relations with every sector possible in the struggle against capitalism, racism, militarism, sexism–to be an organization with not just commentary or criticism on struggles, but one that places itself fully in solidarity with and involvement in those struggles.

It’s impossible for an organization of our size to do everything, but it is possible to ally ourselves with or solidarize with every struggle–even as we have priorities about what we believe we can best contribute to.

Second, the most critical aspect of the ISO beyond our general political outlook is the fact that we have an organization that’s young and active–and that also needs to be educated in the traditions, the language, and in the theory and the practice of the past.

We want people in this organization themselves to be leaders in the mass movement, and to do so, you can’t simply be an activist. You’ve got to have some grasp of politics, of theory–which is why we put a high premium on that.

Third, we believe one of our tasks is to grow and grow substantially, and we don’t see any contradiction between that and what I’ve previously said–to be involved in every struggle. Many people will say that we recruit out of struggles. But the essential idea that a political organization and a party needs to grow is something that we can defend.

We can also defend another notion–it has to be a party that is explicit about its radical nature and about the character of its project.

I ended with those few points because I think that one of the weaknesses of the left coming out of the 1960s has been a de-emphasis of politics and theory, which the radical movement in the United States has always had. Most people want political discussion and political theory.

Secondly, there has been a tendency to think that being an open socialist is something that is impossible to build around in the United States. I would venture that the opposite has been the case.

When we parted way with some comrades some years ago in the 1970s–actually at the peak of the movement–there was a decision to make. One choice was to retreat from the project of building a directly working-class organization through emphasis on labor work, because the ground wasn’t fertile, and instead build an organization that is committed to working-class power, but in the main looks toward youth and students.

That was one of the debates between ourselves and comrades in the International Socialists some years ago. I have to say that 30 years after the process, it is undoubtedly the case that comrades in the IS and Labor Notes have done extremely good work in the labor movement. But from the point of view of the project of Leninism–of building the seeds of a socialist organization committed to the transformation of society–we have made a contribution which has at least kept together that potential.

With a coming radicalization, our organization will really be put to the test. We have not, as of yet, accomplished the heights. Surviving this period has been quite an accomplishment. But the real accomplishment is proving your relevance in the struggle, and I believe that we are at the stage in which we have the constituent elements of an organization that can–over time, and with others–become the kind of party we look to.



Comment from Chris Warren
Time December 22, 2012 at 10:30 am

I have always emphasised unions as the potential organisation of working class politics, and therefore on a vanguard within, not as a satellite without.

In the past, in Canberra the ISO has generally absented itself from:

Unemployed Workers Union
Jobless Action
Nuclear Disarmament Party
Canberra New Left Party
New Labour Party
Canberra May Day Committee (except for 1 individual)
and (of course) from
ALP Left Caucus (except for one ISOer but only for career purposes)

ISOers have worked well in 2XX, but I assume this was a personal commitment because when particular individuals left this activity died?

Comment from John
Time December 22, 2012 at 11:13 am

ISO was instrumental in setting up UWU. ISO doesn’t exist any more in Australia and hasn’t since 2008. If you mean Socialist Alternative, the biggest revolutionary Marxist group in Australia, then get your facts right and say so.

I suspect May Day has collapsed because of Labor and union leadership indifference, and their class collaboration of the last 30 years. We have attended the recent revised ones. My understanding is even then the organising group split over Stalinism/libertarian communism, and that both attacked us.

Why would we be involved in other parties if we are about building our own organisation? We aren’t about building or supporting reformist parties; we are about building a revolutionary Marxist group and then a revolutionary Marxist Party. There may be occasions when we enter bigger organisations to attract people to us, but today is not that time and nor in the past has the tactic worked very well, with the host normally taking over the parasite.

By the way I suspect without Socialist Alternative in Canberra (all of its grand total of 8 members who are in their unions, doing student work etc) there wouldn’t be Equal Love or perhaps Refugee Action Committee work here. I think in terms of activity in unions, struggles and the like our 8 members make more difference in struggles than 80 ALP members.

Our merger with the Revolutionary Socialist Party has opened up and is opening up new possibilities for the revolutionary left in Australia. It will increase the size of the group in Canberra marginally, but hopefully give us a bit more ‘firepower’ to help build struggles in areas where we can like equal love, refugees, our unions and against the attacks on education.

It seems to me the question should be not whether we enter the ALP or other silly suggestions but for those people in Canberra who are genuinely anti-capitalist, isn’t it time you considered Socialist Alternative as your organisation, or at least investigating what we do and have to offer?

Comment from Chris Warren
Time December 22, 2012 at 4:45 pm

Socialist Alternative emerged from trauma within ISO. I categorise Socialist Alternative as a faction within ISO politics (even though ISO itself may have morphed as happens).

I do not think it advisable to avoid being:

involved in other parties if we are about building our own organisation?

Anti-capitalism has to be pursued in the masses – wherever they are and at what ever level they are at. The motive for this has to be more than:

to attract people to us.

The motive should be; to raise consciousness of the masses.

You cannot, in effect, substitute the activity of 8 militants for the political movement of 80 in society at large.

It is the political movement of the masses that needs to be the pivot of anti-capitalist development – difficult though this may be.

The UWU in Canberra was formed when members of the then ISO and CPA cooperated to form a broad mass-based movement including an assumed Maoist. It was supported by ACTCOSS, the then Environment Centre, members of Jobless Action, with some funding from the ANU Students Association (over opposition from Garry Humphries). This broad based, mass movement gained momentum around Australia, but was broken up by Trotskyite splitters who ran their own “Right to Work” campaign and stole UWU assets in Tasmania, by stacking democratic structures.

There is a significant difference between 80 members of the ALP and 80 members of Left Caucus of ALP. I would argue that Marxists can work in the ALP but only through the informal factional system that invariably arises.

In Canberra in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Marxists joined the ALP and those associated with the then CPA necessarily kept this hidden. In the 1970’s the CPA worked openly within Canberra Trades and Labour Council and ANU student bodies. This activity was for a movement of the masses, not to attract members to the CPA although several joined the CPA in the period up to 1980.

The lesson here is that broad projects work best, if they build on the agendas of the masses, at-whatever-level-of-consciosness-they-are-at.

Class collaboration is a difficult concept to control. I am not aware of any Stalinism within May Day committee however it has certainly been downgraded (to a weak vestige of its former form) by the relatively new regime at UnionsACT. This was also the final fate of Jobless Action (by the same elements it would appear).

Comment from John
Time December 22, 2012 at 8:56 pm

But Chris, people who want to change the world let alone revolutionaries aren’t joining the ALP. They are leaving it, or not joining Labor but perhaps joining the Greens or not becoming involved in politics. Or occasionally joining revolutionary organisations.

Socialist Alternative in Canberra initiated the pro Palestinian demo. It has I believe kept alive equal love. Andrew Barr and his flunkies turned up to one rally just before the ACT elections and he spoke in favour of the ACT and Greens sellout of civil union. The rally of 200 people made it clear we rejected that and wanted full marriage equality. Labor is the barrier to full equality. It is the rallies, demos and other struggles over the last 8 years or so which have put this issue on the agenda. Not ALP members but demonstrators and activists.

The idea that we would go near the moribund corpse that is the neoliberal ALP is laughable. Certainly working with the ALP Left will occur when that left organises and participates and mobilises. I am waiting for that to happen in any meaningful sense.

To talk of the agenda of the masses makes no sense. The working class has different agendas. Some sectors are conservative or even reactionary. We are trying to build a party of the militants in the working class to put the ideas of and actions of struggle for a better world here and now and for overturning the current system on the agenda in the future. Mixing with the ALP won’t do that.

It might be different if there was a radicalisation in society and thousands upon thousands of militants were lining up to join the ALP. They aren’t, and I suspect given the treachery of the ALP over the last 30 years, they won’t be in a time of radicalisation. Like France in May 68 they may bypass the traditional parties of do little reform like the PCF there and the ALP here.

The CPA by the 70s was a clearly reformist organisation. We work openly in our unions trying to build rank and file organisation. I am a member for example of the ANU NTEU Branch Committee. Socialist Alternative has just passed this motion at its national conference:

Conference endorses the organisation’s moves to upgrade our trade union work and the decision of the National Executive to appoint an industrial organisation in 2012.

Conference affirms that the organisation will continue and extend this orientation in the coming year.

Now I don’t want to get too carried away because the merger with the Revolutionary Socialist Party and the inflow of non-aligned revolutionaries is only small and just beginning, but with 300 members now (or thereabouts, maybe a little less) we are just beginning to make inroads industrially and building our credibility as militants in various unions. Not only that but we were key people involved in the community pickets at Baiada Poultry, Coles/Toll holdings and Grocon. We supported the CFMEU/BLF at QCH. We are helping in the defence of Bob Carnegie from that dispute. There weren’t any ALP members at these pickets or in support roles as ALP members.

Comment from John
Time December 23, 2012 at 7:58 am

And Chris, I was reading an article by John Molyneux about organisational democracy and came across this: ‘I do not doubt that SWP branches [Socialist Workers’ Party (IST in the UK)] have many defects but one would only have to compare the topics discussed at a typical weekly branch meeting with those at an average Labour Party ward (do they still meet?) to get the point. At the former you might get the economic crisis one week, Palestine the next, followed by fascism and the BNP the week after; at the latter it would be more likely to be the jumble sale, the local pavements and who contests which seat in the local elections, if that.’ It is a good read dealing with much wider questions than just that.

Comment from Chris Warren
Time December 24, 2012 at 5:27 pm

UK political culture is very different to Australia – House of Lords, voluntary voting, repetitive registration and, if I am not mistaken, not even preferential voting.

Also there could be left factions within British labour, within which expanded themes are discussed.

However both mainstream ALP and mainstream Brit labour are not the real point at issue. Its getting a consciousness-raising project located within society, at whatever level of consciousness society is at – not standing outside beckoning for the masses to jump ship. Once they have the consciousness sufficient to possibly make this theoretical jump, they will have already transformed their own entity.

Comment from John
Time December 24, 2012 at 6:25 pm

I think an important point Chris is that it is not about jumping from Labor to the left. Workers aren’t jumping to Labor. Socialist Alternative doesn’t stand outside beckoning for the masses to jump ship. The picket in Brisbane had one of my comrades beign rough handled by the cops. How many ALP members let alone Labor politicians were there as Labor supporting the picket?

Comment from Chris Warren
Time December 25, 2012 at 7:23 am

It seems to me that most left organisations have tended to stand outside mainstream labour organisations and expected their members to flow across.

Workers are not jumping to the ALP, but this problem needs to be addressed in the context of the GFC and such domestic adverse circumstances as declining factor share of wages in GDP, and low minimum wage increases.

We only need a mass jump to socialism, and this is best achieved if the vanguard is part of the movement – not a satellite.

Comment from John
Time December 25, 2012 at 5:59 pm

Maybe Chris; but I don’t think that is true of Socialist Alternative. We work in our unions; we support pickets by unions and have helped them win. I think the reason workers aren’t jumping to the ALP has more to do with its neoliberalism than the GFC. I am unsure how you think the shift of wealth to capital is some sort of factor beyond Labor’s control. It is Labor policy. Labor’s membership has been in steady decline or even free fall for 30 years is my guess.

Comment from Shane H
Time December 27, 2012 at 10:15 am

Instead of analysing what Marx and Lenin did or were supposed to have done. We know Marx & Engels built very broad organisations – and Lenin saw Kautsky and the German Party as a model until 1914. The Bolsheviks were a faction of the Russian Labour Party (which it was assumed would be like the German Party but obviously this couldn’t happen under conditions of illegality). The final split only happening in 1912. This was a debate between *revolutionaries* about strategy. Everyone agreed with Marx that Russia had to go thru a capitalist stage of some kind – being largely agrarian – with differences over how this would come about. The Mensheviks being the orthodox ones in saying that Russia would have to go thru a bourgeois stage lead by the bourgeoisie – and Lenin (late in the day) coming over to realisation that Kerensky would not carry thru the reforms he promised and that the bourgeois revolution would have to be carried thru by the Communists (as Trotsky has suggested years before even tho he sided with Mensheviks in 1903).

So having got that clear 🙂 we can ask what would these men say about our present situation. Faced with an advanced capitalist nation with parliamentary democracy as the norm in which Conservatives represent business and the Labour Party are seen as a legitimate electoral options. The ALP of course has radical roots – produced by the working class out the defeat of the 1890s Great Strikes. Its is the oldest labour parties in the world and one of the first to govern in minority in 1904 before winning the 1910 election on a program of Laborism – which amounted to a colonial liberalism designed to deliver pragmatic (ie ‘practical’ in the positive sense) reforms for working class people. Mostly Australia has been governed by the Conservative party. Since the 1980s it has become increasingly hollowed out with membership falling dramatically so power resides largely in a professional (dare I say it) cadre force of those with a history in the broad labour movement – as lawyers or union leaders – with rank and file largely excluded and leaving the party in droves since the failure of the Accord under Hawke/Keating and its neoliberal agenda and factions ceasing to be vehicles for alternative platforms so much as mechanisms of sharing party positions. The influence of unions has decreased along with the decline in union numbers more generally. Membership numbers are hard to ascertain probably between 30000 (down from three times that in 1980s) and the federal popular vote has been declined to 38% in the last election (with crushing defeats in NSW and QLD at state level),

Many of the Left regrouped around the Green’s social liberalism – opposed to neoliberalism but portrayed by the Media as radical extremists intent on wrecking the economy. The Greens have about 10000 members (up from 1500 a decade ago) and attract around 10-15% of the popular vote (largely from ALP’s left flank).

I assume much the same is true on the Conservative side (though they have always been less reliant on rank and filers) with many in Nationals claiming that the Party has been taken over and looking to some alternative like ‘One Nation’ or rural independents like Bob Katter (whose father left the ALP and joined the DLP in the 1950s split). Katter is an agrarian conservative (eg opposed to gay marriage) who maintains aspects of 1950s ‘socialism’ (opposed to key aspects of neoliberalism, opposed to Coles/Woolworth monopoly) and populist white nationalist views (which took about 17% of vote from the ALP in the last state election).

The far-left is split among the alphabet soup of small groups each defending its ‘program’ or insisting that the problem is one of leadership in the working class (presumably it would be different with them in charge). They each have a few hundred members (at best) – mostly organised around campuses but with a broad range of activities. Their activists play small but key roles in demonstrations and provide backbone of support for key issues. They have had some electoral success at a local level but, when standing in elections which not all do, get sub 1% of the vote.

Historically the far-left (including the CPA) worked with the ALP in some form. It was understood that working people saw the ALP, rightly or wrongly, as their party and that attacks on it from outside were counterproductive. Many earlier Trotskyists in Australia took it for granted that they would be members of the ALP since this was the most likely place to find an audience for their ideas. Even in the early fights with the CPA the Trotskyists preferred to stay in the CPA until they were expelled (often physically) since working from ‘outside’ was much more difficult. I am not suggesting an entrist strategy for the ALP (or the Greens) but it has been the orthodoxy for the far-left for most of the last century.

So where does that leave us? I don’t think quote Marx and Lenin is much use in current conditions but its certainly not clear to me that either man would be suggesting that the far-left be the place to start in re-building the anti-capitalist movement.

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