Developing class consciousness - from the ALP to the revolutionary party

Gould's Book Arcade ggouldsb at
Tue Nov 18 21:53:30 MST 2003

Developing class consciousness - from the ALP to the revolutionary party

[Extract the resolution "The Labor Party and the Crisis of Australian
Capitalism", adopted by the Socialist Workers Party in 1976]

Introduction, by Bob Gould
The Boyle-Paperclayman response to my recent post [on Greenleft_Discussion]
about the ALP is getting more hysterical, incoherent, and also untruthful in
a number of factual matters. I will respond to several of these factual
inaccuracies in a later post. However, it strikes me as potentially very
useful to post the following extract from one of the DSP leadership's own
documents, from the period before they made their great change to the
current 'third period' orientation toward the labor movement, which they
have prosecuted in various ways since 1984-85.

This extract has some stylistic weaknesses, which go with the territory, so
to speak, notably its overly pontifical tone. This stylistic idiosyncrasy
comes initially from Cannon and the US-SWP, and is a kind of imitation of
Comrade Trotsky on a bad day. A style old hands in the revolutionary
movement are familiar with.

Despite these stylistic weaknesses, however, it was a pretty useful
documents, because it canvassed all the contradictions inherent in the grip
of social democracy on the labor movement and the working class in
Australia. It is directed at the task faced by socialists in trying to
prosecute the socialist struggle in a principled way in the conditions of
the Australian labor movement. In the subsequent thirty years or so, the
labor movement has shifted significantly to the right, quantitatively, but
not qualitatively. In this sense all the objective features of the grip of
laborism on the workers movement addressed in this document still exist. The
movement has shifted to the right, but nevertheless the structural grip of
laborism is on the working class is basically intact.

The DSP, and the whole far left, is now dramatically weaker, than the far
left in 1977 when the document was written. The disappearance of the CP,
which was far the largest current of the far left in 1977 (and, to a lesser
extent, the dramatic decline of the SLL which was also influential then),
hasn't led to any qualitative, or even significant numerical, increase in
size of the other groups.

I'm reliably informed that this document was written by D.H. who is still a
significant leader in the DSP, with significant input from the DSP General
Secretary, the late Jim Percy, who took the initiative for the writing of
the document. When the DSP made its turn, pragmatically, away from this
orientation to the workers movement, it was driven by the rise of the
Nuclear Disarmament Party. This turn away from the orientation outlined in
the document, was justified by a yabber yabber 'reinterpretation' of Lenin,
in which the argument that the central thing about Lenin's book Left Wing
Communism and the struggle conducted by Lenin and the Bolsheviks to orient
small communist organisations to the broad labor movement, was no longer
important. The new account held that the central thrust of Leninism related
to the ideology of political parties, and that therefore, any tactical
orientation to mass workers organisations was a deviation. This 'rereading'
of Lenin to justify a fundamentally sectarian orientation in conflict with
the actual practice of the Bolsheviks and the Comintern in the 1920s, is the
DSP leadership's major claim to a significant 'development' of Marxist

In fact, Left Wing Communism and Trotsky and Lenin's speeches at the
relevant Comintern congress, address in detail the question of the
subjective ideology of political parties, in tension with the sociology of
mass labor organisations, and the document here is a pretty well straight
reproduction of this dialectical approach of the Bolsheviks. It stands in
stark contrast to the current strategic orientation of Boyle and Co. which
we've had a vintage expression of in the last few days, which essentially
involves what Lenin tartly dubbed "scalding scoundrels", as a substitute for
 strategy. Its pretty clear that the DSP leadership's 1984-85 'rereading' of
Lenin was a pragmatic falsification to justify a tactical turn, and that
this major break from the method of the Bolsheviks has become substantially
worse as the self-indulgent family atmosphere in the DSP increases.

I make this challenge to John Percy, Doug Lorimer, Peter Boyle and
Paperclayman - please explain in detail where the specific faults of the
analysis presented in this document lie, as you now reject it. Address the
document concretely.

 Developing class consciousness - from the ALP to the revolutionary party

[Extract from Section III of the resolution "The Labor Party and the Crisis
of Australian Capitalism", adopted at the fourth national conference of the
Socialist Workers Party (forerunner of the Democratic Socialist Party),
January 24-28, 1976, and published in Towards a Socialist Australia: How the
labor movement can fight back, Documents of the Socialist Workers Party,
Pathfinder Press, Sydney, 1977, pp. 81-132. This excerpt pp. 110-119.
Prepared for OzLeft, November 2003]

The Australian Labor Party - an obstacle to social change

The Australian Labor Party is the mass party of the Australian working class
and represents both its strengths and weaknesses. With its formation the
working class took a big step forward towards breaking with the political
parties of the bourgeoisie. Today, however, the ALP is an obstacle to the
further progress of the working class.

But because it does represent today the political con-sciousness of the
Australian working class and because we strive to represent that
consciousness in the future, orientation to the ALP is the axis of our work.

Dual nature of the ALP

The ALP, like its counterparts in Germany, Britain, Canada, New Zealand etc
is a thoroughly contradictory phenomenon. Even the phrases by which Marxists
commonly refer to it are contradictory. "Social Democratic labor party" or
"bourgeois workers party."

The ALP is a labor party, that is, the mass party of the Australian working
class. In its origins, composition and organisation it is the party of the
trade unions. As a class party, it represents an historic advance for the
Australian proletariat
It is the only political mass organisation of the Australian working class.
As the present expression of the political class Consciousness of the
working class it represents the elementary understanding that parallel to
the economic struggle of the trade unions, a political struggle must be
conducted against the parties of the bosses.

At the same time, the ALP is a Social Democratic party. There is nothing
whatsoever progressive about this aspect of the ALP. On the contrary, the
Social Democratic program and leadership of the party are an obstacle to the
development of revolutionary consciousness in the Australian proletariat.
Social Democratic reformism is not a necessary stage in the development of
working class consciousness or even a detour on the road to the
revolutionary party: It is a barricade across the road which prevents
further progress.

The program and leadership of the ALP are in contradiction with the
composition of the party. In its composition the ALP is a proletarian
organisation, based on the trade unions. Such independent organisation of
the class to fight for its interests is progressive. But from its beginning,
the party has had a purely parliamentary and class-collaborationist
perspective. This reformist outlook means that the ALP cannot satisfactorily
defend even the immediate interests of the working class, to say nothing of
its historical goals. This contradiction is summed up in the phrase
"bourgeois workers party": the ALP is working-class in its composition, but
bourgeois in its program.

The ALP is the party of the Australian trade unions. But it is the party of
the unions as they are, not as they ought to be. It is the party of unions
which at the present time come much closer to being "secondary instruments
of imperialist capitalism for the subordination and disciplining of workers
and for obstructing the revolution" than "instruments of the revolutionary
movement of the proletariat." To put it another way, the ALP is based on the
organised working class, but does not represent it: what it represents is
the union bureaucracy.

Social Democracy is a petty-bourgeois ideology grafted on to the workers'
movement. Reflecting the unrealisable dreams of the petty bourgeoisie and
the labor aristocracy, which are caught in the middle of the conflict
between capital and labor, Social Democracy preaches a
class-collaborationist utopia in which the irreconcilable conflict between
capitalists and workers is compromised and harmonised - under the direction,
naturally, of the petty-bourgeois politicians of the Social Democracy. The
ALP leaders, like the union bureaucrats, do not see themselves as champions
of the working-class in its battles with the employers. They see themselves
as mediators of the conflict.

The ALP is thus in a state of perpetual tension between the contradictory
poles of its dual nature. On the one hand, it is based on the organised
working class and has the allegiance of the overwhelming majority of the
class; on the other it serves the bourgeoisie.

Principled opposition and tactical flexibility

Our approach to the ALP is conditioned by this contradiction. Firstly, we
are clear that the Labor Party is not our party because it is not the party
that can bring about socialism. Here is how James P. Cannon put the matter
when discussing the British Labor Party and his comments apply equally to
the ALP:

"But then the question is raised - the fact that the question is raised
shows some confusion on the question of the labor party - comrades ask:
'Well, what is the British Labor Party?' If we judge it by its composition
alone, we must say it is a 'workers' party' for it is squarely based on the
trade union movement of Great Britain. But this designation 'workers' party'
must be put in quotation marks as soon as we examine the program and the
practice of the party. To be sure, the formal program and the holiday
speeches mutter something about socialism, but in practice the British Labor
Party is the governing party of British imperialism. It is the strongest
pillar holding up this shaky edifice. That makes it a bourgeois party in the
essence of the matter, doesn't it? And since 1914, haven't we always
considered the Social Democratic parties of Europe as bourgeois parties? And
haven't we characterised Stalinism as an agency of world imperialism?

"Our fundamental attitude towards such parties is the same as our attitude
toward a bourgeois party of the classical type - that is, an attitude of
irreconcilable opposition." (See "Summary Speech on Election Policy" by
James P. Cannon in Aspects of Socialist Election Policy [New York: SWP
National Education Department Education for Socialists bulletin, March,
1971], p. 30.)

So our attitude to the ALP is the same as it is to the Stalinists or any
other opponent tendency: They are obstacles that will have to be overcome on
the road to building the mass revolutionary party. But unlike the Stalinist
parties in this country, the ALP has a progressive aspect - its mass
working-class base. This fact does not alter our goal of removing the ALP as
an obstacle to the socialist revolution, but it dictates a different set of
tactics to accomplish that goal. To quote Cannon again:

"But the composition of such parties gives them a certain distinctive
character which enables, and even requires, us to make a different tactical
approach to them. If they are composed of workers, and even more, if they
are based on the trade unions and subject to their control, we offer to make
a united front with them for a concrete struggle against the capitalists, or
even join them under certain conditions, with the aim of promoting our
program of 'class against class.'"

Cannon goes on to define what our approach would be to such a party if it
developed in the US:

"We would oppose such a 'bourgeois workers' party' as ruthlessly as any
other bourgeois party, but our tactical approach would be different. We
would most likely join such a party - if we have the strength in the unions
they couldn't keep us out - and under certain conditions we would give its
candidates critical support in elections. But 'critical support' of a
reformist labor party must be correctly understood. It does not mean
reconciliation with reformism. Critical support means opposition. It does
not mean support with criticism in quotation marks, but rather criticism
with support in quotation marks." (p. 31.)

So our orientation to the ALP aims to exploit the contradictions within it
in order to clear the party out of our way. We intervene in the ALP in order
to sharpen the conflict between the working-class base on the one side and
the bourgeois program and petty-bourgeois leadership on the other. Our aim
is to make the contradiction between the party's base and program blindingly
clear to the ranks of the working class, which is another way of saying that
we have to expose the ALP leaders as the craven servants of capital that
they are.

None of this implies a sectarian attitude towards the ALP. On the contrary,
the slightest hint of sectarianism could cut us off from the ranks of the
party whom we want to reach. Our uncompromising criticisms of the ALP's
rotten program and treacherous leadership are always presented in the
context of our support to the ALP as a party of the working people in
opposition to the bosses.

The two sides of our orientation are not contradictions which somehow have
to be made to coexist, but logical corollaries. It is precisely its
bourgeois program that prevents the ALP from really defending the class
interests of the proletariat against the bosses.

Our tactical approach towards the ALP can take a multitude of forms and
depends only on what is most effective. We can carry out fraction work
within the party. We can seek to involve elements of the party or the party
as a whole in united front-type activity, e.g. the anti-war movement. We can
at times urge people to join the ALP and urge the strengthening of its union
base. Any combination of tactics is acceptable providing we maintain our
programmatic independence.
Trotsky summarised our approach to work with a labor party when discussing
the American Socialist Workers Party and US labor party: "In relation to the
labor party in all stages of its development the SWP occupies a critical
position, supports the progressive tendencies against the reactionary, and
at the same time irreconcilably criticises the half-way character of these
progressive tendencies." (See "The Program of the Labor Party" by Leon
Trotsky in The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, p. 242.)

In general our method of exploiting the contradiction between the base and
the program of the ALP is to demand that the ALP leaders act as most workers
still believe them to be - their representatives. We demand that the ALP act
like a working-class party by defending working-class interests. The aim is
not only to persuade the ranks that a particular proposal is desirable, but
to put the onus on the ALP (and the union) leadership for failing to carry
it out. Thus, for example, after the dismissal of the Labor governmen6t, we
did not - like the CPA and the "Trotskyist" sects - call for a general
strike in the abstract or demand that the workers down tools because we told
them to; we demanded that the ALP and the unions call a general strike.

Virtually any demand which is in the interest of the working class or other
oppressed layers and which seems reasonable to the masses can serve the
purpose of exposing the ALP leadership and sharpening the contradictions
within the party. It is not necessary to catalogue such demands here; our
draft program contains numerous such examples.

Labor to Power! For a workers government!

There is another important weapon in the arsenal that revolutionary Marxists
have developed for use against mass reformist parties in the working-class
movement. This is the demand that such parties take state power and for a
workers or workers and farmers government.

This tactic is not at all the same as merely calling on the reformist party
to take over the government of the capitalist state. In 1917, the Bolsheviks
were able to expose the ultimately pro-capitalist programs of the Mensheviks
and Social Revolutionaries by calling on them to "take the power" even
though reformists already headed the Provisional Government. The Bolshevik
demand meant: Break with the capitalist state and form a government based
upon your majority in the Soviets. The Bolsheviks raised this demand because
they realised that in order to form a government based on the Soviets, the
reformists would have had to contradict their programmatic allegiance to the
bourgeois state.

What the Bolshevik's demand would have created if the Mensheviks and Social
Revolutionaries had yielded to it has been referred to in the Trotskyist
movement as a workers and peasant's government or workers' government
depending on the class composition of the country concerned. Such a
government is neither a capitalist government nor the dictatorship of the
proletariat, but an extremely unstable and short-lived phenomenon that can
arise when the capitalist state has been severely weakened but not destroyed
and the workers and their allies have not yet, for whatever reason,
established a dictatorship of the proletariat. Such a government is
independent of the bourgeoisie and will therefore be overthrown by the
capitalists at the first opportunity if it does not first abolish the power
of the capitalists by establishing a workers state. The importance of the
demand for a workers government for us at the present time lies in its
propagandistic and agitational use. Trotsky explained this in the
"Transitional Program" :

"The central task of the Fourth International consists in freeing the
proletariat from the old leadership, whose conservatism is in complete
contradiction to the catastrophic eruptions of disintegrating capitalism and
represents the chief obstacle to historical progress. The chief accusation
which the Fourth International advances against the traditional
organisations of the proletariat is the fact that they do not wish to tear
themselves away from the political semi-corpse of the bourgeoisie. Under
these conditions the demand, systematically addressed to the old leadership:
'Break with the bourgeoisie, take the power!' is an extremely important
weapon for exposing the treacherous character of the parties and
organisations of the Second, Third and Amsterdam Internationals." (The
Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, p. 94.)

And further:

"The agitation around the slogan of a workers'-farmers' government preserves
under all conditions a tremendously educational value. And not accidentally.
This generalised slogan proceeds entirely along the line of the political
development of our epoch (the bankruptcy and decomposition of the old
bourgeois parties, the downfall of democracy, the growth of fascism, the
accelerated drive of the workers toward more active and aggressive
politics). Each of the transitional demands should, therefore, lead to one
and the same political conclusion: the workers need to break with all
traditional parties of the bourgeoisie in order, jointly with the farmers,
to establish their own power." (p. 95.)

The development of the class struggle in Australia has not yet produced
soviets, which would considerably simplify the task of presenting the demand
for a workers' government. Nevertheless, we have developed slogans which
express the same essence as the Bolsheviks' demand that the Mensheviks and
Social Revolutionaries "take the power." Naturally, the best opportunity for
the present to advance such slogans is provided during election campaigns,
when the question of government is foremost in the minds of workers and the
other oppressed.

Election tactics

In the 1972 and 1974 elections, we put forward the slogan, "Vote ALP! Fight
for Socialist Policies!" This was a concrete expression in the given context
of the slogan "For a Workers Government." It meant: for a government by the
mass party of the working class, but one not committed to the bourgeois
program of the ALP - a government independent of the bourgeoisie.

By using this tactic of critical support we are using Lenin's method:
"Support them in order to force them to take office so that the masses will
learn by experience the futility and treachery of their program, and get
through with them."
In 1975, the growth of our organisation and the development of its cadres
made it possible for us to advance the same idea in a more concrete - and
therefore more effective - form. By running our own candidates, we could
pose more directly to the ranks of the working-class base of the ALP and its
bourgeois program. By putting forward our own candidates on a clear program
of transitional demands, while calling unmistakably for the return of a
labor government, we gave workers the opportunity and encouragement to
oppose the reactionary policies of the ALP without abandoning the one
progressive aspect of the ALP, its character as the mass party of the
working class in opposition to the parties of the bosses.

We think that Trotsky expressed this correct approach of a small formation
towards the mass Labor Party in his discussions on the Independent Labor
Party in Britain in 1935. Trotsky was asked:

"Question: Was the ILP correct in running as many candidates as possible in
the recent General Elections, even at the risk of splitting the vote?

"Answer: Yes. It would have been foolish of the ILP to have sacrificed its
political program in the interests of so-called unity, to allow the Labour
Party to monopolise the platform, as the Communist Party did. We do not know
our strength unless we test it. There is always a risk of splitting and
losing deposits, but such risks must be taken. Otherwise we boycott
ourselves." (See "Once Again the ILP: An Interview with Leon Trotsky" in
Writings of Leon Trotsky (1935-1936) [New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970], p.

The revolutionary thrust of our election campaign strategy can be
highlighted by contrasting it to that of the CPA, which managed to
opportunist and sectarian simultaneously. The CPA campaign was opportunist
because it put forward no real programmatic differences with the ALP. It was
sectarian because putting forward its own candidates without expressing
political differences could only mean: "Vote for our candidate over the ALP'
s because he or she represents our organisation instead of theirs; we are
better than the ALP but we won't tell you why."

Trotsky also pointed out that we run in elections against the Labor Party
not to expose this or that individual candidate who is particularly
reactionary but to expose the party as a whole. There is no fundamental
distinction between different shades of Social Democrat. Nor do we urge a
vote for Labor on the basis of some or another aspect of its program:

"Revolutionists never give critical support to reformism on the assumption
that reformism, in power, could satisfy the fundamental needs of the
workers. It is possible, of course, that a Labour government could introduce
a few mild temporary reforms. It is also possible that the League [of
Nations] could postpone a military conflict about secondary issues - just as
a cartel can eliminate secondary economic crises only to reproduce them on a
large scale. So the League can eliminate small episodic conflicts only to
generalise them into world war.

"Thus, both economic and military crises will only return with an added
explosive force so long as capitalism remains. And we know that Social
Democracy cannot abolish capitalism.

"No, in war as in peace, the ILP must say to the workers: 'The Labour Party
will deceive you and betray you, but you do not believe us. Very well, we
will go through your experiences with you but in no case do we identify
ourselves with the Labour Party program.'" (p. 70.)

Some have argued that the ALP is already exposed and to run in elections
only gives credibility to parliamentary democracy. In these circumstances we
should urge a boycott, they say. Trotsky's answer was:

"It is argued that the Labour Party already stands exposed by its past deeds
in power and its present reactionary platform. For example, by its decision
at Brighton. For us - yes! But not for the masses, the eight million who
voted Labour. It is a great danger for revolutionists who attach to much
importance to conference decisions. We use such evidence in our propaganda -
but it cannot be presented beyond the power of our own press. One cannot
shout louder than the strength of his own throat.

"As a general statement of principle, a revolutionary party has the right to
boycott parliament only when it has the capacity to overthrow it, that is,
when it can replace parliamentary act6ion by general strike and
insurrection, by direct struggle for power. In Britain the masses have yet
no confidence in the ILP. The ILP is therefore too weak to break the
parliamentary machine and must continue to use it. As for a partial boycott,
such as the ILP sought to operate, it was unreal. At this stage of British
politics it would be interpreted by the working class a certain contempt for
them: this is particularly true in Britain where parliamentary traditions
are still so strong." (p. 70.)

Of course, in running in elections we in no way fall prey to the trap of the
Social Democrats who see parliament as the decisive arena of struggle and
the way to win reforms for the working class. We take our stand along the
lines of the resolution of the Second Congress of the Comintern on "The
Communist Attitude to Parliamentary Reformism":
"In face of imperialist devastation, plunder, violation, robbery and ruin,
parliamentary reforms, devoid of system, of consistency and of definite
plan, have lost all practical significance for the working masses .

"Parliament at present can in no way serve as the arena of struggle for
reform, or for improving the lot of the working people, as it was at certain
periods of the preceding epoch. The centre of gravity of political life at
present has been completely and finally transferred beyond the limits of
Parliament." (See Aspects of Socialist Election Policy, p. 5.)

Any candidates who are successful in election contests will act as "scouting
parties" for the working class and use the parliamentary bodies as a forum
to propagate the ideas and demands of socialism.

Where and when we run our own candidates in the future will depend on our
strength, the gains that can be made, and considerations of a similar
nature.  The growth of our organisation will increasingly make it possible
for us to run our own candidates and thus pose concretely our program
against the program of the ALP.

Gould's Book Arcade
32 King St, Newtown, NSW
Ph: 9519-8947
Fax: 9550-5924
Email: bob at

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