United Fronts - Labor parties and the Socialist Project

Shane Hopkinson s.hopkinson at cqu.edu.au
Thu Nov 21 21:29:22 MST 2002


Dear All

Now that some of the heat has gone out of the flame wars I hope
we can return to a our earlier discussion, I have plans to review
the debate and pull out what I think the key issues are and
Bob Gould has promised us his summation of the Labour Aristocracy
debate from his perspective.

I think more open debate is a good thing. I don't think we have
all the answers but I'd love to hear what genuine socialists
in the ALP or Greens think, beyond criticising the DSP.

I welcome Bob's and Steve's comments even if they are critical
of the DSP. My only surprise is that we react so defensively -
labelling them or the S. Alt as "enemies" of some kind would
be counter productive - even if they were. The 'rollback and
containment' metaphor is offensive though in Graeme's defence
we all express things internally that we might not want
expressed in that form publically. No excuses though. I
think we need to put an end to closed caucases and competing
for market share.

So lets turn to a new question what ideas does the ALP left
or the Greens have to offer us?

The Greens are obviously making headway but I think that
the idea that they form policy out of public debate is
exaggerated. Perhaps I'm wrong here but do members of the
Greens participate in the Green equivalent of Marxmail?
and is this likely to have much effect on the leaders?
It may well be that we set the ideological bar too high
in the DSP but there are dangers in setting too low,
as I'm sure Steve and Bob will acknowledge.

I am one of those 'warm fuzzy' types who thinks unity
is a good thing. I think the issue of the ALP is a key
one for the Alliance but in terms of on-the -ground
campaigns it's a bit abstract. Here in Rockhampton we have
a local ALP  member who identifies as a socialist as does
her press secretary who attends our events and always buys
our paper. Nevertheless in campaigns such as anti-war and
refugees she is invisible, mainly I assume, because it is
an electoral liability in a redneck town like this. I don't
see a need to denounce her but if they don't set up a Labor
for Refugees I don't think we should do it for them either.

Bob has suggested we need a united front with the ALP,
in which case then I want to put the ball back in his court
a little:  Exactly how, on the basis of their experience,
do socialists in the ALP think that they can advance
the socialist project?

The ALP is one of the oldest parties of its type in the
world and has had a hegemonic role in the working class
for over a century. Like other Labor Parties there is much
debate about its commitment to socialism and whether the
current crop of leaders can really be accused of betraying
traditions and socialist objectives they did not uphold
in the first place.

Reading over an article by Boris Frankel (1997) 'Beyond
Labourism and Socialism' (New Left Review No 221) he notes
that while the British Labour party underwent modernisation
in the face of a terrible defeat, which might make even the
hardened militants more inclined to be pragmatic, such was
not the case in Australia. The defeat of the ALP in March
1996 brought to a end the longest continuous period in
recent decades in which the trade union movement had a
central role in national socio-economic policy. While
attacked by the Right, a plethora of left tendencies
and socio-cultural organisations also tried to shape ALP
policy either via unions or other social movements.
In the midst of this the ALP was captured by the radical
(and pragmatic) pro-market policy makers and leaders. The
socialist left faction in the ALP was large (and with the
Communist Party) controlled key unions in manufacturing,
mining, building, transport, energy and communications.
The working class had suffered no decisive defeat - indeed
the Transport workers strike against the wage freeze was
the nail in the coffin of the Liberal (ie conservative)
government. One would have thought that things could not
have been better for socialists in the ALP to lead us on
a better road and yet the right faction centred on
Hawke/Keating were able to pave the way for Thatcherism.

While I would be happy to extend a United Front to
socialists in the ALP I would like to hear them explain
what went wrong. The Socialist Left were strongest in
Victoria and the Victorian ALP governments of Cain and
Kirner tried to implement neo-Keynesian policies but
failed in the face of Keating's deregulatory policies.
More recently the socialist Left faction expelled a number
of its members who pledged that they would not support
privatisation, so it seems as if neo-keynesianism has
been put behind them. So what ideas are they putting
forward? What do they want to campaign with us on?

Frankel points out that accomodation to capitalist culture
began with Gough Whitlam who in the late 60s removed the
labourist overtones of 'party of the working class' to talk of
'employees'. In the late 70s an internal debate on the 'socialist
objective' watered down the ALPs committment to nationalisation -
commitments that had ceased to be part of electoral programs
since the early 60s. Hawke took power in 1983 on a
wave of enormous popularity (he was former ACTU president)
and set about achieving a populist consensus with the Accord,
which was the basis for the shift to a pragmatic neoliberalism,
which was why it was supported by the Right faction.

The Socialist left attempted to use the Accord between the
ACTU and ALP as a vehicle for strategic or 'political
unionism' as a basis for the transition from capitalism to
socialism. Brian Howe, parliamentary leader of the Socialist
Left (and later deputy Prime Minister) couched his strategy
in socialist terms. Frankel points out that it was difficult
to see a clear international model of socialist strategy in
70s and 80s, especially in the face of well-funded think-tanks
and corporate media promoting neoliberalism. The Accord,
the left argued,offered the best opportunity to implement a
national industry policy, boost the social wage, for workers
to effect some kinds of workplace democracy and lay the
basis a new political unionism, instead they ended up
trying to manage capitalism.

Given that the outcome - decline in real wages, undermining
of shop stewards networks and  the triumph of neoliberalism
- what do socialists in the ALP think they should do to
advance the socialist project in the light of this experience?
What should they have done differently? Perhaps instead of
waiting to get 51% of seats at the ALP conference they
should have broken with the ALP when they could had 35-40%
of conference with them. I know historically this has not
worked well but historically the ALP were genuine reformists -
now they are neoliberals. How could it have been worse?

Is the ALP is still a mass party? Membership had declined
and is monopolised by professionals and carreerists.
Capitalists have little need of a 'civilised capitalism'
with a good welfare state when the sweat-shops of the Asian
region and their Australian equivalents are readily available.
The attempts to build a new Left party have floundered
despite the generalised discontent with neoliberalism.
The Greens seem to be taking up the slack here, but the
ALP Socialists show no sign of breaking with the ALP
or proposing a socialist alternative. The growing
demoralisation of the public and the rejection of
politics - brought about by ALP policies - is part of the
reason that no mass alternative has developed. Whatever
snide remarks Lev Lafayette (ALP socialist) may make about the
Alliance on OZLEFT about 'wasting a generation' I remained to be
convinced that joining the ALP is less of a waste - and now
at least I have some principles intact. I would be interested
to here what their assessment of the Accord was? There must
have been quite a debate - it would seem that this might
be a more useful focus than Lenin's assessment of the ALP
in the 1920s.

Frankel concludes that 'under Hawke and Keating
the old socialist project died and a ressurrection is
most unlikely. The only dispute is whether the death was due
to murder, suicide, social neglect or old age.' Since this is
the kind of thing that people say about Marxism I will not
advance my judgement  but I think we in the Socialist Alliance
should make it clear that we *are* prepared to help socialists
in the ALP move forward the socialist project in any way we can
but we need to be convinced that they are serious
about it, even that they have a plan to aviod the failures of the past.

Over to you

Shane

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