Formation of Socialist Alliance: A historic step forward for Left

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Josephine Cox, Socialist Alliance candidate in the Aston by-election, marches to free refugees. Photo by Peter Murray.

The Freedom Socialist Party has long advocated a socialist electoral alternative in Australia and we are very proud of our efforts to date. The urgent need to put fresh socialist solutions before voters at election time — a time when the majority of people are thinking about politics — is why we have actively supported previous efforts such as the Progressive Labour Party and a key reason for our participation in the February conference which founded Socialist Alliance (SA). The Socialist Alliance project is a historic development. Nine socialist organisations — including FSP — have agreed to unite as a Socialist Alliance to stand candidates in the upcoming Federal elections. The time has never been more urgent or more promising for such an alliance.

Margaret Thatcher had a saying — TINA, there is no alternative (to her neoliberal policies), and capitalist apologists have worked hard for decades to convince the working class majority that this is the case. But the mood is changing as more and more people realise that there has to be an alternative!

The emerging anti-globalisation protest movement demonstrates a new radicalism as working class people — especially young people — are prepared to question the whole system, identifying capitalism as the source of our woes. Many are open to the next logical step — seeing socialism as the alternative.

The resurgence of One Nation in the West Australian and Queensland State elections signals the urgency of making the Socialist Alliance successful. Many disenchanted small business people, farmers and other rural voters and sections of the urban poor voted for One Nation as a protest against globalisation. We all know One Nation is poison and peddles scapegoating lies. This makes it a very handy outlet for the capitalist class. It is handy because rightwing populism misleads people who are angry, hurting and confused by the ravages of globalisation. It directs people towards blaming other working class people for their problems instead of targeting the real culprit — unfettered global capitalism.

First success. So we have urgency and potential — and now we have reality. Socialist Alliance has hundreds of members spread across the country — in every capital city, many regional towns, and at large.

After the death of the Liberal member for the Federal seat Aston, an outer Melbourne electorate, Socialist Alliance decided to run a candidate. Initially, FSP was skeptical about this decision, believing that the absence of Federal electoral registration would prevent the name “Socialist Alliance” getting media coverage. The counterposition was that standing would build the Alliance and raise its profile. That position proved to be correct. Josephine Cox, the candidate, together with an enthusiastic campaign committee, did a magnificent job of getting the media to accept the idea that, although she was described as “independent” on the ballot paper, hers was the first election campaign for Socialist Alliance, which intends to stand candidates in many state capitals and regional cities, and to field a Senate ticket in most States. Provided that the Alliance can jump through the necessary legal hoops, it will have Federal registration and so its name will appear on ballot papers.

Capitalist crisis at hand. In FSP’s 1999 political resolution, From the Ashes of the Old Century, A Better World’s In Birth, we say that the crisis of capitalism has arrived because the capitalist system — which is based on the need for constant expansion — has now come hard up against a fundamental contradiction which is unresolvable in the long term. The era of reforms is over.

In order to slow the slide in the rate of profit, the capitalist class must continue to squeeze efficiencies out of the working class. Yet workers are also capitalism’s consumers. Every worker sacked or reduced to subsistence income is one less purchaser of the goods now stockpiled in warehouses in advanced capitalist countries. Thus capitalism is facing a permanent crisis of overproduction. Neoliberalism is causing immense suffering around the globe and this suffering is fuelling resistance, but this nascent rebellion suffers from the same problem now as it has for the past 80 years: a crisis of working class leadership. Social Democracy is in a total mess and now preaches neoliberal globalisation, fascism and rightwing populism, making the most of the vacuum of working class leadership. This is a very real danger, and fragmentation and demoralisation has undermined the left internationally.

To quote the resolution:

“The Left is fragmented to the point of absurdity and held back by rampant sectarianism and theoretical rigidity and sterility. Much of it is compromised by a history of sellout of working class interests, especially those of the most oppressed. Other socialist organisations are blind to the true political potency of working class women, people of colour, immigrants, queers, Native peoples, Jews, disabled, youth and elders. They are thus unable to intervene in real-life struggles effectively…The FSP, as the most long-standing and consistent voice for left united fronts, must continue to do everything in our power to encourage collaborative left resistance to the biggest capitalist evils…”

This confirms that FSP needs to do everything possible to assist Socialist Alliance succeed in providing a vibrant anti-capitalist alternative to voters looking for solutions.

Unique position of FSP. The Freedom Socialist Party was founded 35 years ago after a long, bitter debate in the U.S. Socialist Workers Party (SWP) over the “Woman Question,” the nature of the Black Civil Rights Movement and the political degeneration of the leadership of what had been the world’s leading vanguard party. The FSP leadership, drawing on work by many of the leading Marxists, including Marx himself, Lenin, Trotsky and Clara Zetkin, placed the struggle for women’s emancipation at the centre of all other struggles. This was before the term “women’s lib” had been coined. It also viewed the Civil Rights movement as a grassroots attempt to finish the American Civil War by winning bourgeois democratic rights for the millions of Black Americans living under police state terror in the South.

As to the political character of the SWP leadership, the FSP defined it as “radical labourite” in character. “Radical” as a recognition of the powerful residue of the traditions of revolutionary socialism. “Labourite” because it believed that socialist politics on an extended scale would develop exclusively through the medium of a labour party based on the unions. The fundamental problem with this position is that it fails to recognise that the working class majority is no longer the straight, white, male, traditionally unionised blue collar workers. And that while superficially these workers may at times appear “the most militant,” they overwhelmingly follow the leadership of the middle caste union officials who keep the fight contained and limited to demanding reforms, which capitalism can no longer give. (For a full discussion of the issues involved see Clara Fraser and Richard Fraser, Crisis and Leadership, Seattle, Red Letter Press 2000.)

Radical Labourism and Socialist Alliance. In a country profoundly influenced by Social Democracy, it is impossible to avoid taking a position on the union movement, the Labor Party, their relationship with each other and their joint influence on the broader social movements. The union movement is, after all, the largest membership organisation in the country, by a wide margin. It is not surprising that radical labourism is evident in the Left, including among the affiliates to Socialist Alliance.

In fact, mainly because of the betrayals of the ALP over the past three decades — and the complicity of the leadership of the unions in those betrayals — the tendency is not nearly so profound as in the U.S. of the ’60s. It is quite difficult to place any faith at all in a party which has advocated, put in place and managed neoliberalism in Australia for more than half of those 30 years, in partnership with the top leadership of the union movement. It is even less possible when the longer history of the ALP is taken into account, particularly its role — through the White Australia Policy — of aiding and abetting the racist, inhumane dispossession of Indigenous nations. That said, the tendency is definitely there, and perhaps is the single biggest hurdle to be overcome if Socialist Alliance is to succeed.

Potential Pitfalls. Three areas where radical labourism may be at issue are: orientation to the leadership of the unions, the nature and character of the environment movement, and the question of Indigenous rights.

In the first case, while it is absolutely correct to engage with sympathetic Left male union officials, it must not be to the detriment of making links with the majority of unionists who are neither so obviously (but narrowly) militant nor so relatively privileged. Socialist Alliance will be built not only from the endorsement of individuals but more importantly from the mass defection of unionists from the ALP’s sphere of influence. This is most likely to be achieved in those sectors where the ALP and neoliberalism have done most harm — the health and community sector, the education sector, and the textile and hospitality industries. In these areas, workers have the least to lose by ditching the ALP. And even in the unions represented by these Left officials, it is the membership, not the person, that we have to win over.

In terms of the environment movement, it is still viewed by some as “auxiliary” to the “main game” of winning the working class from the ALP. This has been evident in discussions about preference policy. Should the Greens be preferenced before the ALP? Or should the ALP always be allocated Socialist Alliance’s second preference, because workers vote for the ALP? The answer to the first question is no, when, as in Aston, the Greens issued a “split ticket” directing preferences to the Liberal Party. But the answer to the second question is also no. Workers do vote for the Greens, and other “environment” candidates. Who else would? They vote for them because the environment is an important issue and because the Greens are perceived to be a radical alternative to the ALP. The task of Socialist Alliance is to win workers from the Greens to ourselves. This means engaging the Greens, not sidelining them through an incorrect assumption that, because the party is not based on the unions, it automatically has no working class base.

Thirdly, the nature of the Indigenous struggle needs clear understanding in the light of some opposition on the Left to the call for a treaty between Indigenous peoples and what the FSP terms the “Australian Settler State.” This seems to stem from a misunderstanding of the class nature of the struggle. It is not a struggle by a minority working class group for bourgeois-democratic rights, although it shares some of the demands and methods. Fundamentally it is a national liberation struggle or, more precisely, a group of such struggles. To ignore this is to commit the converse of the error of the 1960s SWP leadership — by burying the National Question. The issue is not whether or not a treaty under capitalism would bring justice for Indigenous peoples. Clearly it would not. It is about where we, as socialists, stand on the question of Indigenous sovereignty. That must be against any form of assimilationism. It must be on the basis that if we were in power, we would tear up any unfair capitalist agreements and treat as equals on the basis that we are dealing with sovereign peoples with the right to secede if they wish it. Socialists would argue against actual secession, seeking to unify the continent under a Socialist Federation. The alternative to supporting a treaty is to accede to the assimilationists as the Spartacist League once did, by inventing a theory of “defeated nations.” They have now resiled from the position. It would be a grave error for any Left grouping to return to it.

Build Socialist Alliance! The Freedom Socialist Party, and our sister organisation, Radical Women, are committed to working with other organisations and individuals to expand the membership and influence of Socialist Alliance. Members of the FSP and Radical Women working inside the Alliance played a major role in shaping this platform and strengthening the demands on issues important to women, queers, people with disabilities and Indigenous people. We are proud of our impact as socialists feminists and believe our efforts in pushing for a platform more inclusive of the demands of the majority of the working class have already improved the chances of the Alliance attracting broad working class community support and achieving its goals. We look forward to building on the success of the Aston campaign through vigourous participation in the coming General Election.

The beginning of any project is the most delicate and difficult phase. While the nine organisations that have come together to form Socialist Alliance do so with open hands, there is a rather long history of distrust and outright hostility to overcome. The foundation of the Alliance is a big step on the path to filling the vacuum of working class leadership that the Hansonites and other rightwing populists seek to fill. Comradely debate, mutual respect and a little good humour are needed to get beyond any initial prickliness, because it is more than time that socialism was put back squarely on the political agenda.

Socialist Alliance is the best chance since the heyday of the Communist Party for socialists and socialism to intervene in what passes for political debate in the “Tweedledum, Tweedledummer” capitalist forum that is the Parliament. Socialism cannot be achieved through the ballot box. But the ballot box can be an excellent tactic for building a mass movement of the working class that will — and must — achieve it. The Socialist Alliance can inspire voters by putting forward candidates who stand unequivocally for working class interests. It can pry open the electoral process, offer and popularise practical anti-capitalist solutions to seemingly intractable problems, build a powerful grassroots movement and get socialist candidates elected!

Socialist Alliance is an historic opportunity for the Left in this country, with enormous potential. FSP urges everyone who wants to see an effective socialist electoral alternative not to adopt a “wait and see attitude,” but to join Socialist Alliance today. We can’t sit back and wait for femocrats, union officials or social democrats to give the lead, because any leadership will, at best, be aimed at tinkering around the edges of our problems and, at worst, point working people in the wrong direction. We need to be honest and get out there and convince the majority that there is an alternative to neoliberal globalisation, and it’s called socialist feminism. By being bold and positive and putting forward our concrete vision of a very human, democratic and socialist future, we can win the support of the majority and in doing so stop the threat of a rightwing backlash permanently!

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