What kind of organisation do socialists need?

by Corey Oakley • Published 12 January 2013

The move towards a fusion of Socialist Alternative and the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) has opened up an extensive discussion on the Australian left about questions of left unity, socialist regroupment, and what kind of organisation the left needs.

This discussion is of no small importance. The global capitalist crisis has confirmed in spades the Marxist analysis of the system, and the argument for its overthrow. The bitter and heroic struggles against austerity waged by workers in many countries, and the Arab revolutions which continue to unfold, demonstrate that it is possible to resist, that in spite of decades of ideological and organisational retreat the social forces that Marxists look to as agents of revolution are far from exhausted. But the last few years have also highlighted one other point: the socialist left is a long way from equal to the challenge set for us by the objective situation. Two decades after the fall of Stalinism, and almost four decades since the beginning of the long decline of social democracy, the radical left has not been able to fill the gap.

There are of course, partial exceptions. In Greece, the rise of Syriza has opened major opportunities for the far left, although there are still many tests before it and the outcome is anything but certain. In Venezuela, the development of the revolutionary process has given cause for enormous hope. But the hard truth is that in most countries, particularly in the West, socialist forces, let alone revolutionary socialist forces, remain extremely weak.

In Australia, the global economic crisis has not yet impacted with anything like the ferocity that has been seen elsewhere. But we still face an ongoing ruling class assault on workers’ security and living standards, on union rights, on the health, education and welfare systems, all in the name of a neoliberalism that is embraced by both major parties. Refugees, Aborigines, and other oppressed groups continue to be subject to savage assaults on their rights. The union leadership remains timid and accommodating, and shows no interest in organising a working class fightback. The Greens – who many put up as a possible alternative to the failures of Labourism – have shifted sharply to the right since they entered a de facto coalition government with Labor in 2010. Here, as around the world, the challenge for the left is to build a new socialist movement that can lead a real fightback and provide an alternative to the failures and betrayals of other political currents.

But the urgency of the situation facing us – the self-evident need for a party with mass influence – can easily lead to disastrous errors. There is a strong pressure on socialists to try to find shortcuts to a bigger and more powerful organisation – shortcuts that end up only weakening the revolutionary forces.

For many decades during the last century, revolutionary Marxists were an embattled minority, overshadowed by strong Communist, Maoist and left-reformist currents in the labour movement. Since the decline of these forces in the 1980s, and then their collapse with the fall of the USSR, the revolutionary left has been faced with the difficult situation of simultaneously being the only real socialist voice in Australian politics, but still being far too weak to fill the vacuum left by the disintegration of Stalinism and the Labor left.

Attempts to overcome this situation – driven by entirely understandable motives – led to various get-rich-quick schemes, all of which ended in disaster. The International Socialist Organisation (ISO), from which Socialist Alternative originated, was wracked by a bitter split in the 1990s over debates about how to build in this new period.[1] The long term result was the collapse of the ISO and the loss of hundreds of committed socialists to the revolutionary movement. The other main far left organisation, the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP), which was in fact considerably bigger than the ISO, was wracked by a split a decade later when the Socialist Alliance project failed to live up to the expectations set for it. Again, a considerable number of people (including a number who had been regalvanised in the initial phase of the Alliance) were lost to socialist politics.

Socialist Alternative has no intention of repeating the mistakes of the past in our current proposals about left regroupment. The last thing the Australian left needs is another over-inflated, unrealistic scheme that blows up in a year or two. On the other hand, we feel it is incumbent on us to do what we can to unite what forces there are on the Australian left that are serious about building a fighting socialist organisation. That process entails a reassessment of the divisions of the past and present: an examination of which points of disagreement are barriers to unity and which are not. The process of moving towards unity with the RSP, and of welcoming into our ranks comrades who were former leaders of the DSP and have a different history and tradition from ours, has given us confidence that such a project is not only realistic, but an exciting opportunity to try to unite the key currents of revolutionary Marxism in Australia into a single organisation.

Previous attempts at left unity in Australia

We do not pretend that we are the first people to seriously consider the question of how the left can unite. Over the last decade or so there have been numerous efforts internationally to form new left organisations or overcome old animosities and differences. Here in Australia, Socialist Alternative attempted, on numerous occasions, to open up talks about unity with the ISO, and even with the much smaller group, Solidarity, the organisation that emerged out of the ISO’s collapse. Unfortunately they repeatedly refused to even consider the possibility of unity.

Without question though, the most significant left unity project in Australia in the last period has been the Socialist Alliance. It is worth briefly examining some of the discussions in the early period of this project, so we can compare it with what we are proposing today. The Socialist Alliance was formed on the initiative of the DSP and the ISO – then the two biggest socialist organisations in Australia. A series of the other small socialist groups joined. Socialist Alternative joined initially, as we considered the aim of the Alliance worthwhile, but we were always sceptical about its prospects for success and our support was really only nominal. After about a year we considered that our scepticism had been vindicated and we left.

One of the major problems from the outset was that the different groups involved – and particularly the DSP and the ISO – had very different ideas of what the Alliance was. Most of the affiliate groups saw the Alliance as a forum for broad socialist unity, but one in which the unique “revolutionary program” of the various constituent parts would be maintained.

The ISO, following the lead of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, saw the Alliance as primarily an electoral project, aimed at disillusioned Labor voters. They rejected any attempt to give it more than a broad reformist “real Labor” type program, and argued against anything that emphasised the role of revolutionary socialists in the new formation. This approach was disastrous: the Socialist Alliance never made any significant electoral breakthroughs or won over any substantial number of disillusioned reformists.

The Democratic Socialist Party, on the other hand, saw the Socialist Alliance as a left regroupment project from very early on. As the failure of the ISO’s electoralist orientation became obvious the DSP pushed to transform the Alliance into a “multi-tendency socialist party”. At the 2003 Socialist Alliance conference the DSP, by virtue of an alliance with non-aligned members, won an overwhelming majority to this perspective. There have been some attempts recently to claim the “multi-tendency” idea was never a “broad party” project. It is true that the DSP always saw the Alliance as a vehicle for socialist regroupment rather than a home for left reformists, and the DSP, to its credit, proposed a program for the Alliance well to the left of what the ISO wanted. But it is nonetheless undeniable that the DSP intended the “multi-tendency” party to have a program that was not explicitly revolutionary, in order to appeal to forces beyond the revolutionary left. The resolution at the 2003 conference read, in part:

Our multi-tendency socialist party should be as broad as possible… We accept and welcome a strong revolutionary socialist stream as an integral part of our vision of a broad Socialist party.[2]

In 2005 Peter Boyle wrote that:

The Socialist Alliance is not the “DSP rebadged”. This is not just an insult to SA members but is totally false. The Alliance is a much looser and broader organisation than the DSP and it is united on a more limited political program than that which unites DSP members.[3]

DSP leaders and their supporters repeatedly referenced the Scottish Socialist Party as a model, but also other broad left formations.[4] In 2005 the document “The Democratic Socialist Perspective and the Socialist Alliance: Draft resolution for the DSP congress” clearly distinguished between a revolutionary party and a broad left formation:

The DSP continues to see the struggle to build a broadly based anti-capitalist party as a stage in the struggle for a mass revolutionary party in this country. This has been our view since our 11th Congress in January 1986, when we affirmed that: “Only the creation of a serious anti-capitalist alternative, necessarily founded on a complete break with Labor reformism, can open the way to working class victories… Revolutionaries therefore place a high priority on helping to develop such a political alternative – a broadly based party that consistently counterposes defence of the interests of the workers and their allies to the illusions of class peace fostered by the ALP and the trade union bureaucracy. The road to building such a political alternative lies along the line of seeking unity among all who are willing to break with Labor reformism and to encourage the most broadly based action in defence of the interests of workers and their allies”… We are confident that, while such a broad left party necessarily begins with an incomplete class struggle platform and a broad socialist objective (i.e. does not have an explicitly revolutionary program), in the course of united engagement in mass struggles, it will steadily and democratically develop its program in a more explicitly revolutionary direction.[5]

It is absolutely true that the emergence of a new, broad-based working class party would be a significant step forward, and could be an important stepping stone towards the formation of a future mass revolutionary party in Australia. But the problem with the Socialist Alliance was that it was never such a party. It was driven by revolutionary groups – the DSP primarily – and did not draw in sufficient numbers of forces to make it broad. What gave the Alliance its “broadness” was not a broadly based membership, but the “broad”, i.e. less explicitly Marxist, viewpoint being put forward in its publications and other public presentations of its views. There are times when it might be necessary or advantageous for revolutionaries to put forward less than their full position, to fudge important political questions, or to a greater or lesser extent dissolve into a broader formation. But an argument to do this needs to be made very concretely on the basis of an analysis of the situation and what you are trying to achieve. And any positive advantages need to be weighed against the substantial risks involved: most importantly that you disorganise and disorient your existing forces, and make it hard to win new people to a Marxist outlook and revolutionary activity.

A new vision of left unity

One of the questions Socialist Alternative has repeatedly been asked (possibly with the history outlined above in mind) is whether our proposal to regroup socialists from different political traditions means “watering down our politics”. Our answer is an emphatic no. We are not proposing a broad party of the left. There is no evidence in the current Australian situation that such a project could succeed. Nor do we consider that a regroupment of the revolutionary left in Australia at this point necessitates some “half-way house” that will evolve into a more programmatically united organisation in the future. Instead, we think it is both necessary and possible to unite the genuinely revolutionary currents on the Australian left on the basis of a clear and uncompromising Marxist program that deals with the key issues facing socialists in Australia. Achieving such a goal does not rely on a more or less rapid development of new radical left forces, but the capacity of the existing revolutionary forces to find a way to unite in common cause. If we can carry this out, it will be a significant step forward for the Australian socialist left.

In a number of articles on our website, Socialist Alternative has outlined our general approach:

We are for unity around a clear cut revolutionary program – a socialist program for Australia today. Such a revolutionary program would not rehash all the theoretical disputes of the past. It would not demand that the organisations involved in the unity process disown their heritage or political traditions.

But it would be an unambiguously Marxist program that stood for workers’ power and the overthrow of capitalism. It would be a program for a fighting party of committed activists that took up the immediate fight today against the bosses and their governments and intervened in those struggles to win workers and students to understanding the need to totally transform society.

The “Aims and Objectives” section of the new constitution adopted at the Socialist Alternative conference in December 2012 reads as follows:

Socialist Alternative is a revolutionary Marxist organisation. We stand for the overthrow of capitalism and the construction of a world socialist system. International revolution, led by the working class, is the only means to this end… The working class can only seize political power and overcome the resistance of the capitalist class if it has, in its great majority, broken from the policies of the openly pro-capitalist parties and from the reformist forces that represent capital within the workers’ movement. Similarly, the only means by which the workers’ movement can seize power is by pitting against the might of the capitalist state machine an equally cohered and centralised force. For this, a revolutionary party is needed, consisting of the most advanced sections of the workers’ movement, cohered around a revolutionary program. Our aim is to contribute to the construction of such a party in Australia. To that end we are building an organisation that both promotes Marxist ideas and also attempts to act in solidarity with, build and lead struggles of workers and the oppressed.[7]

This clear statement on the need for a revolution and a Marxist party to lead it should be agreeable to every revolutionary Marxist, regardless of the particular tradition they come from, their analysis of the class nature of particular states, or positions they hold on numerous historic questions.

The statement of principles adopted by conference (see appendix), which advances straightforward and uncompromising Marxist positions on a range of questions important to socialists in general and Australian socialists in particular, should likewise be uncontroversial among Marxists. We think that the combination of the “aims and objectives” set forth in our constitution and the points set out in our “statement of principles” lay out a programmatic basis on which the different currents on the Australian revolutionary left can unite.

This is not to paper over or downplay the importance of the disagreements that do exist. The RSP, with whom we are in the final stages of merging, have differences with us over historical questions such as the class nature of the USSR, and over contemporary international questions such as the nature of regimes in countries like Cuba and Vietnam. We have differences in our assessment of the revolution in Venezuela, and we have quite different approaches to the revolution in Syria. On issues more immediately connected to Australian politics, we had a disagreement about events surrounding the rape and murder of Jill Meagher in Melbourne last year, and we have differences about more general issues concerning the Marxist approach to feminism.

But there is no reason such disagreements cannot be handled within a united organisation if we agree on the fundamentals. And there is no need for anyone to water down their positions on these questions, or to pretend we agree when we don’t. Controversies on these and other issues can be handled in the manner that disputes are always (or always should be) handled in revolutionary organisations: by discussion, debate, a vote, and then the adoption of a position. The method of open and democratic debate before coming to decisions is much preferable to the “multi-tendency” approach because it encourages debate and clarification of differences. We want a party that can decide and act, not a cobbled together group balancing different interests and unable to put forward a clear argument.

We do not hold – as some on the left do – that “democratic centralism” dictates that after a decision has been taken minorities have no right to express their view. The right of minorities to dissent, publicly if they feel it necessary, has been made explicit in our new Constitution, which says that “members have the right to publicly express disagreement with decisions and policies of the organisation”.[8] We are conscious that there is more to minority rights than constitutional guarantees. For democratic debate to be real in a socialist organisation there needs to be an atmosphere of honest and open discussion, in which members feel free to air differences and thrash out political debate without fear of reprisals or stigma.

We believe that such an atmosphere exists in Socialist Alternative today, and that the steps we have taken to integrate our organisation with the RSP over the last few months have done a substantial amount to build trust on both sides about the future. In the context of mutual agreement about fundamentals and a sense of common purpose, we are more than happy to debate out in appropriate forums any number of topics where there is disagreement. As this fusion and the broader process of regroupment proceeds over the course of this year, we are determined to build on this and create an organisation that revolutionaries from different traditions and backgrounds can feel at home in and make their own. We know that there is a sense in which each current on the far left talks its own language, and has its own assumptions. We want to overcome that and attempt, by a process based on mutual good will and open discussion, to think through how we can clarify the areas of agreement and disagreement in a way that overcomes barriers of language, tradition and competition.

RSP members and other revolutionaries who join our ranks will be given the opportunity to play a leading role in the united organisation. One RSP member nominated by their leadership will be co-opted to the editorial board of the Marxist Left Review in February, in anticipation of the merger. Socialist Alternative conference voted to co-opt a number of RSP members on to our National Committee. One former DSP leader, Jorge Jorquera, who joined Socialist Alternative last year, has already been elected to that body. We are proud that our united organisation will have in its national leadership founders of the two major revolutionary currents that emerged from the 1960s radicalisation in Australia – John Percy and Tom O’Lincoln.

Towards the end of 2012 we entered into talks with the Socialist Alliance about the possibility of uniting with them. These talks are in their early stages, so it is premature to comment too much here. Socialist Alternative has had a number of important criticisms of Socialist Alliance, some of which have been outlined above. In our view the “broad socialist party” project they originally set themselves has not succeeded. But it has been indicated to us by leaders of the Socialist Alliance that they are willing to consider shifting towards an orientation that is more programmatically and organisationally in line with what we are arguing for. If that is the case, then there is a basis to talk seriously about uniting our organisations. This would be a major step forward for the Australian socialist left.

Revolution and revolutionary theory

In the discussion surrounding the unity process we have emphasised that we are for unity on an openly revolutionary basis. We make no apology for that. The system of world capitalism that we confront today cannot be overturned by any means short of mass insurrection, a thoroughgoing revolution on an international scale that systematically dismantles the huge apparatus of capitalist class rule and replaces it with new institutions of workers’ power and popular control. A socialist movement that refuses to openly confront this reality is building on sand. We need a party of militants who understand the magnitude of the tasks facing us.

One objection to articulating a full revolutionary position that has been put by some in the Socialist Alliance is that the language of Marxism is alienating to many workers in contemporary society. This is wrong on several levels. First of all, the task of the small socialist forces in Australia is not to relate to the mass of workers and young people, but to the most politically advanced minority. As then-DSP leader Jorge Jorquera put it in a debate in the Socialist Alliance in 2002:

Many of the contributions by ISO comrades in these debates relied on the view that the revolutionary left should take its cue from the so-called “average worker” who is “fed up with Labor but”. However, even if this represented a marked social trend, it would certainly not be the starting point for revolutionaries.

Revolutionaries have always taken their tactical cue from the advanced workers, those engaged in struggle on the issues of the day. It is workers leading union struggles and social movements who provide, in the course of their struggles, the slogans and demands which the revolutionary movement seeks to generalise across the mass movement.

In any case, there is no necessary connection between the extent to which you put forward a maximum program and whether or not that program is expressed in popular and accessible language. The DSP’s own tradition provides some of the best popular explanations of the socialist project. Think of James Cannon in “Socialism on trial” or Peter Camejo’s brilliant “How to make a revolution in the United States”.

But while popularising socialist ideas is an important task, it is only one step in building an organisation that fights to lead the working class movement towards its historic goal. Lenin famously said that “without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement”.[10] That theory is Marxism. Lenin did not mean by his statement simply that the leaders needed to base their actions on solid theoretical foundations, nor was he limiting his comments to the party members. Obviously not every individual worker will be a theorist, but the working class as a whole needs theory if it is to achieve its historic goals. After the statement from What is to be done? cited above, Lenin went on to quote Engels praising the German workers’ movement:

Without a sense of theory among the workers, this scientific socialism would never have entered their flesh and blood as much as is the case. What an immeasurable advantage this is may be seen…from the indifference towards all theory, which is one of the main reasons why the English working-class movement crawls along so slowly in spite of the splendid organisation of the individual unions.[11]

The working class needs theory because, unlike previous revolutionary classes, it can only seize power by its own conscious action as a class. Even the limited needs of the bourgeoisie to understand society in order to change it produced the extraordinary scientific, philosophical, political and cultural breakthroughs that made up the Enlightenment. But in most instances the bourgeoisie was handed power: at best by a farsighted element in its own ranks, more often by layers below it and in many cases in spite of its protestations that it did not want to rule. But no one will hand power to the workers’ movement. If it is to overthrow capitalism and create a new world, the working class will need a level of understanding that in both breadth and depth dwarfs even the greatest achievements of bourgeois society.

What the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci called the “battle for hegemony” – the fight to win workers to a comprehensive world view that replaces the various layers of “common sense” ideology that dominates capitalist society – is impossible without theory. One of the great weaknesses of the workers’ movement today, and part of the explanation for the difficulties the left has had in rebuilding after the collapse of Stalinism, is that socialism as a totalising world view has been discredited in the eyes of large numbers of workers. Overcoming this, and explaining convincingly the reasons behind the failure of Stalinism and social democracy, are crucial tasks facing socialists.

The need for the working class to be educated in socialist theory in order to win its emancipation has been a thread running through our movement for the whole of its history. It is why ours is a movement of endless books and documents and newspapers and journals. It is why Tom Mann, perhaps the greatest workers’ leader to have ever landed on our shores, implored the Broken Hill miners (whose strike he had been called in to lead) to “Read Capital – the bible of the working class!”

However convincing Mann was, it is unlikely that every striking miner went and read Capital – though I suspect a much greater proportion did than among today’s philistine intelligentsia. But for the basic ideas of socialism to penetrate to the mass of workers, it is necessary for the advanced sections, the class conscious militants, the leaders, to have a deeper understanding that gives confidence to the circles surrounding them. A few simple slogans might, at times, be able to galvanise people into action. But these slogans have to be based on a broader conception, a historic view, that the advanced layers are confident can adequately explain the complexities of the struggle.

In periods of difficulty and retreat, a deep rooted understanding of what you are doing and why you stand where you do is crucial. Many years after the events a Polish former-Stalinist, Leopold Trepper, made this point in an unusual way when writing about the Trotskyists who resisted Stalin when so many had not:

They fought Stalinism to the death, and they were the only ones who did. By the time of the great purges, they could only shout their rebellion at the freezing wastelands where they had been dragged in order to be exterminated… Today the Trotskyites have a right to accuse those who once howled along with the wolves. Let them not forget, however, that they had the enormous advantage over us of having a coherent political system capable of replacing Stalinism. They had something to cling to in the midst of their profound distress.[12]

Of course there have been times when socialists, particularly in long, hard years of isolation, have allowed theory to become dogma – scripture that gives comfort to the suffering, and reassures them of their righteousness. This has nothing to do with Marxism, which is, as Hal Draper said, “the theory of the proletarian revolution” – a guide to action in order to change the world, not a means to hide from it. In any case, firm theoretical foundations are important in the ferment of a mass movement as well. In the 1905 revolution Lenin argued to rapidly expand the party, bringing in large layers of newly radicalising workers. This was possible, he argued, against those who were concerned that such a course would “dilute” the party, precisely because they had built on a firm foundation:

Danger may be said to lie in a sudden influx of large numbers of non-Social Democrats into the party. If that occurred, the party would be dissolved among the masses, it would cease to be the conscious vanguard of its class, its role would be reduced to that of a tail. That would mean a very deplorable period indeed. And this danger could undoubtedly be a very serious one if we showed any inclination towards demagogy, if we lacked party principles…or if these principles were feeble and shaky. But the fact is that no such “ifs” exist… We have a firmly established party program which is officially recognised by all Social Democrats and the fundamental propositions of which have not given rise to any criticism.[13]

The fight for an organisation committed to Marxism is also the fight for an organisation that takes the history of the socialist movement seriously. In 1966 the US socialist James Cannon talked about the importance of historical consciousness in the socialist movement:

The second reason that I would give for the durability of this party of ours is the fact that we did not pretend to have a new revelation. We were not these “men from nowhere” whom you see running around the campuses and other places today saying, “We’ve got to start from scratch. Everything that happened in the past is out the window.” On the contrary, we solemnly based ourselves on the continuity of the revolutionary movement. On being expelled from the Communist Party, we did not become anti-communist. On the contrary, we said we are the true representatives of the best traditions of the Communist Party… Before that, some of us had about ten years of experience in the IWW and Socialist Party, and in various class struggle activities around the country. We said that we were the heirs of the IWW and the Socialist Party – all that was good and valid and revolutionary in them. We honour the Knights of Labor and the Haymarket martyrs. We’re not Johnny-come-latelys at all. We’re continuators.[14]

This should not mean – as it has tended to in the past – that a party has to be constituted on the basis of total agreement about a particular historical narrative in which the true revolutionary path can be traced in detail from Marx and Engels through the twists and turns of the twentieth century up until today, with all who deviated from it condemned as renegades and betrayers. But it is not necessary to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The history of the Marxist movement is a vast reservoir of experience without which we would be immeasurably weakened. We want an organisation that is committed to integrating the lessons of that history into our project for today.

Active and accountable membership

One of our aims in arguing for revolutionary regroupment is to create a space to reinvolve many people who have been through the revolutionary left, and while they are still committed to the fight against the system, and agree with the core politics of revolutionary Marxism, don’t feel they can find a place in one of the socialist groups. We want to create that place in our organisation. We know that this won’t be easy or automatic. Some people who have been through the wringer of left politics will want to wait and see if our actions match our words. Fair enough. Take the time you need to judge us by our deeds. Others have already expressed their enthusiasm about joining a united group. Even better. But it is important to make one thing clear. We are not proposing to establish a retirement home for revolutionaries. People who join, we want to be active members. This doesn’t mean that if you have family responsibilities and other pressures on your time we expect you to run around with the energy of our student members. But we do not want a passive membership that does nothing to participate in the building of the organisation.

Having an active membership is not some moral imperative. It is a crucial aspect of building a democratic, interventionist organisation whose core business of “leadership” is not centred on the National Executive, but the mass of the members fighting to build a class struggle politics in the unions, a fightback among students, stronger and more determined social movements, and championing resistance to injustice wherever they encounter it. We do not reject or downplay the importance of developing a party leadership that is authoritative, has the confidence of the membership, and is capable of elaborating and fighting for a strategy to take the organisation and the left forward. But our conception of how a socialist organisation should operate is radically different from that of liberal parties like the Greens or the reformist parties like the ALP, who outsource responsibility for the policy and activity of the group to the leadership, and whose members are little more than cheerleaders.

We are for genuine democracy, where every member has the opportunity to put forward their arguments in the democratic forums of the group. But revolutionary democracy demands involvement. If you want a say over how the organisation operates and what its policies are, you have to be involved in its work. And after the debate has been had out, you have to be responsible to the democratic decisions that are reached. As Sandra Bloodworth explains in her article “Lenin vs ‘Leninism’”, we reject the narrow notion of democratic centralism that implies the bureaucratic enforcement of agreement when none exists. But we do say that members have to be responsible to the organisation – particularly when they are in positions of influence or responsibility in the trade or student unions, the movements, or other areas of social struggle.

We do not want an organisation where people in elected or other full time positions in the unions are not responsible to and under the discipline of the group. We do not want an organisation with a layer of well known left celebrities who do not have to carry out work on behalf of the group other than when it suits them, while other members are expected to do the serious work of party building day-in and day-out. Instead, we want to build an organisation in which every member is as involved as their circumstances allow, and has both a say over what we do and an accountability to what we decide.

Building and renewing a cadre

A central issue connected to the idea of an active membership and a democratic organisation is the idea of “cadre”. Cadre has become a dirty word in some quarters of the left in recent years – to even raise it invited accusations of scandalous sectarianism. But no substantial and effective socialist organisation can be built that does not pay attention to the task of developing experienced activists who understand what they are doing in a serious way and don’t just rely for their politics on a few catchphrases or the latest directive from the leadership; people who can influence and lead others inside the organisation and out. Of course all kinds of comrades can fit into this category, and the often silly attempts to give the term a precise definition tend to be unhelpful. The layers of people in an organisation that go back 30 or 40 years and have a wealth of experience and knowledge but are not central to the organising work of the group are cadre. So are the younger people who have been around for five, 10 or 15 years and play a central role in running branches, writing, organising campaigns, engaging in debates in the organisation and on the left. So are union militants who might play a less day to day role in the structures of the group (on branch committees etc), but are seriously engaged in trying to play a leading role in creating a left in the union movement that can lead workers in a class struggle direction, and try to bring that knowledge into the organisation.

One of the major problems for left groups around the world who have pursued “broad left” style projects is that these attempts have been carried out at the expense of building a new cadre. They essentially relied on the membership that had been trained in an earlier period to be the “core” of the new project, and the new people brought on board were not seriously developed. This is a big enough problem when the “broad” project succeeds in cohering serious new forces and rapidly expanding the influence and size of the organisation. It is made much worse if in fact the hopes for mass recruitment and influence turn out to be illusory. Not only do you risk demoralising your existing cadre, but you have no new layers emerging to step into leadership roles.

At the best of times politically, a cadre doesn’t develop itself just by involvement in the struggle. But when times are tough, the need to build a cadre is much more urgent. The weight of bourgeois society bears down on an organisation and its members. Glib catchphrases and delusional rhetoric or exaggeration of an organisation’s influence may hold things together for a while, but they can’t do so indefinitely. Only serious attention to developing revolutionary activists who can look reality in the face, see the size of the mountain we have to climb, yet still have the determination to take the first steps, can start to build an organisation with not just numbers but also the stability and self-confidence to be able to respond to events and have an impact in society.

One of the criticisms sometimes thrown at Socialist Alternative is that it is all very well to organise hundreds of new people to march together with red flags at a rally, but they are all just naïve uni students who won’t stay in politics long. Now, being able to organise decent numbers of inexperienced activists is nothing to sneer at, and I wonder what motivates those who sneer. But it is also true that if all you can do is populate your group with people who won’t stick around, then you will never get anywhere. Over the last decade, though, Socialist Alternative has made some serious steps in building a new cadre of revolutionaries. This started around the turn of the century with the small but important radicalisation that was the anti-corporate movement. S11 in Melbourne, and the whole process leading up to it, was crucial in us starting to establish ourselves as a group and win over a series of people – some new to politics, others who had been active and had some profile on the left. If you leave aside the people whose political life began much earlier, in the radicalisation of the ‘60s and ‘70s, plus a few other individuals, the core of the branch leadership we have today is people who were recruited between 1999 and 2004. And then beyond that there is a substantial layer of committed members who joined in the following five years or so.

Here are some statistics to back that up. The average age of the 90 or so delegates to our 2011 conference was just over 30 years. Forty-one percent of the delegates had been members of the group for 4-7 years. Thirty-two percent had been members for 8-10 years. Forty-eight percent were workers (compared with 28 percent students).[15] That is a huge change from where we were eight years ago. It is true that the organisation as a whole has less experience and has more students than the conference delegates. But not by that much. Every year there are a number of experienced, active members who do not get elected as delegates, and one of the regular arguments during delegate elections in the branches is over how many experienced members should be elected and how many of the young students playing a leading role in our campus clubs.

We want to build a new united organisation that, as well as being focused outwards and winning new people to socialism, is seriously committed to the process of cadre renewal. How successful we are in this will be a crucial factor in determining the extent to which we can expand our forces more rapidly in the future without pulling the organisation apart.


We need a revolutionary party to overthrow capitalism. All else being equal, we should construct an organisation that is imbued with an understanding of that fact and fights for revolutionary politics openly and unashamedly. Of course it is true, as many before us have pointed out, that the road towards the mass revolutionary party we need will not be straight: there will be many jags and bends, at some times we will have to take great detours that are painful but unavoidable, at others there may be a chance to make substantial advances that we could not make by ploughing on straight ahead. But if you want to argue for a detour, you have to provide a compelling reason. In Australia today, there isn’t one. There is no section of workers or political layer outside the revolutionary left that we can aim to draw into our ranks by tacking to the right for a time, or softening our views with a perspective of future clarification. All those paths have proven, for now, to be blind alleys. So in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, the most sensible policy is to head directly towards where we want to go.

Plus, there is a great advantage to being upfront in your politics: in being bold. The revolutionary movement does not want to attract to its ranks timid people who don’t want to rock the boat, don’t want to cause offence, and are afraid of their own shadow. We want fighters and iconoclasts, brawlers and rabble rousers – women and men who can stand against the tide and fight for what they believe in. The great strength of the Industrial Workers of the World, the most iconic and untarnished revolutionary organisation in Australian history, was that they attracted precisely those people – and others who wanted to learn how to be like them. Workers who wanted to read and understand, yes, but most of all who wanted to fight the class war, rip the head off the boss, kick the reformist leaders in the teeth, fight for their ideas, and to hell with anyone who wanted to stop them.

Of course such sentiments need to be tempered by experience, a strategic orientation to the next step forward, how to win over people who don’t agree and so on. But nonetheless, if you are building an organisation of politicians instead of an organisation of rebels and insurgents, you are not building a real socialist party. We agree with the idea of the Socialist Workers Party – the predecessor of the DSP – which summed up the aim of socialists in its 1977 statement “Towards a Socialist Australia”, by saying:

…The mass revolutionary socialist party…will be forged tomorrow in the heat of the class struggle. [Our] task is not to advocate timid reforms or to merely applaud revolutionary struggles in other countries, but to build the mass party that will contribute to the world socialist revolution by toppling capitalism in Australia.[16]

Socialist Alternative is not so grand as to presume that we are the single “nucleus” for a future mass party, which will be constructed by a combination of forces that exist today and others much more variegated that have not yet come onto the scene. But the fact is that the more we do today to unite and build the forces of revolutionary socialism, the better we will be able not only to intervene in the vital struggles of today, but out of those struggles contribute to the construction of a revolutionary working class movement that can tear apart the hateful system of greed and exploitation we live under, and start to build a new world.



1. Socialist Alternative is a revolutionary Marxist organisation. We stand for the overthrow of capitalism and the construction of a world socialist system.

2. By socialism we mean a system in which society is democratically controlled by the working class and the productive resources of society are channelled to abolishing class divisions. Only socialism can rid the world of poverty and inequality, stop imperialist wars, end oppression and exploitation, save the environment from destruction and provide the conditions for the full realisation of human creative potential. A system under the democratic control of the working class is the only basis for establishing a classless, prosperous, sustainable society based on the principle “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”.

3. Stalinism is not socialism. We agree with Trotsky’s characterisation of Stalin as the “gravedigger” of the Russian Revolution. The political character of the regime established by the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia most closely resembled that placed in power in capitalist countries by victorious fascist movements – an atomised population ruled over by a ruthless bureaucratic dictatorship masquerading behind social demagogy. We stand in the tradition of the revolutionaries who resisted Stalinism, and we fight today to reclaim the democratic, revolutionary politics of Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky and others from Stalinist distortion.

4. Socialism cannot be won by reform of the current system or by taking over the existing state. Only the revolutionary overthrow of the existing order and the smashing of the capitalist state apparatus can defeat the capitalist class and permanently end its rule. A successful revolution will involve workers taking control of their workplaces, dismantling existing state institutions (parliaments, courts, the armed forces and police) and replacing them with an entirely new state based on genuinely democratic control by the working class.

5. The emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself. Socialism cannot come about by the actions of a minority. The struggle for socialism is the struggle of the great mass of workers to control their lives and their society, what Marx called “a movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority”.

6. For workers to be won to the need for revolution, and for the working class to be cohered organisationally and politically into a force capable of defeating the centralised might of the capitalist state, a revolutionary party is necessary. Such an organisation has to cohere in its ranks the decisive elements among the most class conscious and militant workers. Laying the basis for such a party is the key strategic task for socialists in Australia today.

7. It is not enough for a revolutionary party to organise the vanguard of the class. For capitalism to be overthrown, the majority of the working class must be won to revolutionary action and the socialist cause. It is not enough to simply denounce the non-revolutionary organisations and political currents in the workers’ movement. Revolutionaries have to engage reformist organisations via the method of the united front in order to test the possibility for united action in practice and demonstrate to all workers in a non-sectarian way the superiority of revolutionary ideas and practice. We support all demands and movements that tend to improve the position and self confidence of workers and of other oppressed sections of the population.

8. Socialists support trade unions as the basic defensive organisations of the working class. We stand for democratic, militant, class struggle unionism and reject class collaborationism. We also stand for political trade unionism – the union movement should champion every struggle against injustice.

9. Capitalist exploitation of the working class and the natural world has created a situation where the profit system threatens the habitability of the planet. We oppose attempts to halt climate change and environmental destruction through measures that place the burden on working class people and the poor. We instead demand fundamental social and political change that directly challenges the interests of the ruling class. The environmental crisis can only be solved under socialism, where the interests of people and the planet are not counterposed.

10. Socialists are internationalists. We reject Australian patriotism and nationalism and fight for international working class solidarity. The struggle against capitalism is an international struggle: socialism cannot be built in a single country.

11. The imperialist phase of capitalism has ushered in an era of military conflict that has no precedent in human history. The core element of imperialism is the conflict between imperial powers, or blocks of capital, which attempt by military, diplomatic and commercial means to divide and redivide the world in their own interests. In the conflicts between imperial powers (open or by proxy), revolutionaries do not take sides, least of all with our own ruling classes. Nor do we call for the resolution of inter-imperialist conflict by the “peaceful” methods of international diplomacy. Instead we fight for international working class solidarity and unity, and embrace Lenin’s revolutionary call to “turn the imperialist war between nations into a civil war between classes”. In the case of wars waged or diplomatic pressure exerted by military threat by the imperial powers against colonies and non-imperialist nations, we oppose the imperial power and defend the right of national self-determination.

12. Australia is an imperialist power in its own right. Through its own economic and military strength, and in alliance with US imperialism, Australian capitalism seeks to politically and militarily dominate its region and project power more broadly. This gives revolutionaries in Australia a special obligation to stand in solidarity with struggles of workers and the oppressed in our region against Australian imperialist intervention and control.

13. We recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the first people of Australia. We acknowledge that sovereignty was never ceded and condemn the crimes of genocide and dispossession committed by European colonists and the Australian state. We support the struggle for land rights, sovereignty and economic and social justice for Indigenous people.

14. We oppose all immigration controls and support open borders. We fight to free all refugees from detention and for the right of asylum seekers to reach Australia. We oppose racism towards migrants. In particular we reject racism towards Muslims, whose right to religious and political freedom is routinely attacked on the spurious grounds of “fighting terrorism”.

15. We oppose all oppression on the basis of sex, gender or sexuality. We oppose all forms of discrimination against women and all forms of social inequality between men and women. The struggle for freedom from exploitation and freedom from all forms of oppression includes the liberation of lesbians, gay men, bisexual, transgender and intersex people. We fight for an end to all legal and social discrimination against LGBTI people and all forms of sexist discrimination. We support full reproductive freedom for all women.

16. All these forms of oppression, and others like the oppression of the young, the disabled and the elderly, are used to divide the working class and to spare capital the expense of providing for the needs of all members of society. Combating them is an essential part of building a united working class struggle that can win a socialist society. Only a socialist revolution can bring about the genuine liberation of the oppressed and the ability of every human being to realise their full potential.

[1] For a detailed analysis of the split in the ISO and the political development of Socialist Alternative, see Mick Armstrong, “The origins of Socialist Alternative: summing up the debate”, Marxist Left Review, No.1, Spring 2010.

[2] Minutes of the Second National Conference of the Socialist Alliance, Socialist Alliance Discussion Bulletin, Vol.3, No.8, May 2003.

[3] Peter Boyle, “New challenges for Socialist Alliance”, Alliance Voices, Vol.5, No.7, June 2005.

[4] For example in 2005 DSP member Dave Riley wrote in a debate about process in Alliance Voices that: “among formations which may be similar to our own – like Respect/the Unity Coalition, the English Socialist Alliance and the Scottish Socialist Party – no such constitutional prescriptions operate, without any apparent harm to their pluralism or their deliberating processes.”.

[5] “The Democratic Socialist Perspective and the Socialist Alliance: Draft resolution for the DSP congress”, Alliance Voices, Vol.5, No.11, December 2005.

[6] Mick Armstrong, “A response to ‘what politics to unite Australia’s left’”, Socialist Alternative, Issue 183, December 2012.

[7] Socialist Alternative Constitution, Section 1. The constitution is available at http://www.sa.org.au/index.php?option=com_k2&;view=item&id=3931.

[8] Socialist Alternative Constitution, Section 2.2.5.

[9] Jorge Jorquera, “A contribution on perspectives for Socialist Alliance”, Socialist Alliance Internal Discussion Bulletin, Vol.2, No.1, December 2001. The phrase “fed up with Labor but” refers to the argument made by the ISO that there was a large number of Labor voters disillusioned with the party but who would not join an openly revolutionary group – the Socialist Alliance was supposedly going to provide them with a home.

[10] Lenin, “What is to be done?”, Collected Works, Vol.5, p.369, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1973.

[11] Lenin, “What is to be done?”, p.371.

[12] Quoted in Alex Mitchell, Come the Revolution: A Memoir, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 2011, p.320.

[13] Quoted in Tony Cliff, Building the Party. Lenin 1893-1914, Bookmarks, London, 1994, p.177.

[14] James P. Cannon, “Reasons for the survival of the SWP and for its new vitality in the 1960s”, speech to YSA and SWP members, September 1966. Available at http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/fit/dontstrangle.htm#section2.

[15] These statistics come from an unpublished survey of delegates to the 2011 Socialist Alternative conference, which was held in Melbourne. Statistics from the 2012 conference are not yet available but it is likely they will show a continued development in the same direction.

[16] Socialist Workers Party, Towards a Socialist Australia: how the labor movement can fight back, Pathfinder Press, Sydney, 1977, p.169.

Lenin and a theory of revolution for the West

Sandra Bloodworth argues that Lenin and the other great revolutionaries of the early twentieth century provide us with a theory of revolution for advanced democracies.

A critique of the writings of Murray Smith on broad left parties

Mick Armstrong offers a critical assessment of Murray Smith’s approach to broad left parties – one of the key debates on the socialist left internationally over the last fifteen years.

The origins of Socialist Alternative: summing up the debate

The need for a socialist workers’ party that could rebuild rank and file union organisation and mount sustained resistance to every ruling class attack could not be more sharply posed. This is a task that Socialist Alternative has dedicated itself to over the last fifteen years. While we are still far from being the mass party we need to be – a party that could intervene in and attempt to lead every struggle by workers and the oppressed – we have, despite the generally difficult political climate, made modest steps forward and are now the largest organisation on the revolutionary left in Australia. This article is an attempt to sum up the lessons of the debates in the International Socialist Tendency (IST) about the assessment of the political situation and perspectives for building revolutionary organisations that led to the formation of Socialist Alternative in 1995.