Coalitionism: Short term glory for long term disaster


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The correct decision by the Greek leftwing party Syriza to not enter into a coalition government with the two traditional pro-capitalist mainstream parties (New Democracy and Pasok) is in stark contrast to the Australian Greens who continue to prop up the Federal Labor Government. Syriza have in principle refused to enter into any government that supports pro-austerity policies.

The Socialist Party’s sister organisation in Greece, Xekinima, goes further and campaigns for a government of the left parties to carry out anti-austerity, pro-worker policies and to adopt a socialist programme to transform society.

A programme for united action by the left parties around opposition to all austerity measures, for cancellation of the debt, public ownership of the main banks and industries and for socialist change, will gain widespread support from the working class as the new right-wing government continues to implement austerity.

Syriza understood that if they had of instead entered into a coalition government with New Democracy and Pasok it would have involved them ditching their more radical policies.

The Australian Greens on the other hand readily agreed to support a minority ALP government after the last Federal election. Of course the Greens do not claim to be a socialist party, or even a leftwing party, but nevertheless the same processes impact on them. The Greens are a smaller, usually more progressive (but still pro-capitalist) party than the ALP. Yet in agreeing to a pseudo-coalition they have had to water down their core policies.

On the environment they have retreated from a target of a 25% carbon emission cut by 2020 to the 5% demanded by Labor. In the recent Federal budget, they secured a modest improvement to dental care but this was totally overshadowed by their support for the slashing of government spending by 4.3% in real terms. This will lead to thousands of job losses and cuts to services.

The sole defence put by the Greens for propping up the ALP government is that the alternative of a Tony Abbot led Coalition would be even worse. The principle expressed is that of ‘lesser evilism’.

The Socialist Party believes that the differences between the ALP and the Liberals are less crucial than the importance of building a new mass leftwing party in Australia. By supporting neither of the main pro-capitalist parties, a left wing party could become the pole of opposition to them. This is what Syriza is doing in Greece right now.

In the 1890s the most politically advanced sections of the working class realised that neither of the two main parties of the day, the Free Traders and the Protectionists, represented their interests. They rejected both and took the brave step of building a new party for workers, the ALP.

For a while the new party was open to criticisms of sectarianism and splitting the pro-protectionist vote (which had traditionally received most support from workers), but in time it was clear that the decision had been correct.

Today in the US, genuine socialists oppose both the Republicans and Democrats and call for a new progressive party to be built to represent the unrepresented – workers, youth, unemployed, migrants etc.

On Yarra Council, the Socialist Party have opposed both the Greens and the ALP’s neo-liberal policies and in the process has become the opposition on the floor of Council and more importantly on the ground amongst residents. The alternative would have been the Socialist Party becoming a left cover for the Greens, providing them with ideological cover while demoralising socialist voters through supporting neo-liberal policies.

In short, the inevitable criticism (usually from the Right) of sectarianism when a small left wing party refuses to support the least bad capitalist party is a price worth paying. In the end it forces the pro-capitalist parties together, demonstrating how little they differ and exposing them in the eyes of the population. This can open up the space for a rapid rise in support for the genuine Left alternative of socialism.

Coalitionism is the anaemic cousin of Popular Frontism

The term Popular Front was coined in the 1930s and referred to an alliance of the workers’ parties (Communist and Socialist) with the so-called “progressive” bourgeois parties. It was raised by Stalin as a panicked reaction to the coming to power of Hitler in Germany. This had occurred because of Stalin’s previous and equally incorrect ‘social fascist’ theory which claimed that all non-communists were fascists of some kind and banned any joint action between Communist and Social Democratic parties to combat the Nazis.

Popular Fronts were aimed at uniting the Left with the non-fascist pro-capitalist parties, the so-called “progressive wing of the bourgeoisie”.

In 1937 Trotsky criticised the very basis of popular frontism – that is ‘the more the merrier’ is the way to proceed in, for example, the fight against Franco in Spain during the Civil War.

He said “The theoreticians of the Popular Front do not essentially go beyond the first rule of arithmetic, that is, addition: “Communists” plus Socialists plus Anarchists plus liberals add up to a total which is greater than their respective isolated numbers. Such is all their wisdom. However, arithmetic alone does not suffice here. One needs as well at least mechanics. The law of the parallelogram of forces applies to politics as well. In such a parallelogram, we know that the resultant is shorter, the more component forces diverge from each other. When political allies tend to pull in opposite directions, the resultant proves equal to zero.”

‘Progressive capitalists’ always attempt form an alliance with the workers movement at crucial moments in history. They understand that their only option is to use the leaders of the Left to hold the workers back. Thus the property and the state of the capitalist class can remain in tact. Without putting overall control of the economy in the hands of the workers, without the abolition of capitalism, it is not possible to solve the many problems facing the working class. Thus a process of disillusionment sets in, whereby the workers lose confidence in their own forces. This can either lead to a coup as in Chile in 1973 or to the coming to power of reactionary conservative governments via the ballot box as in Australia after the constitutional coup against Whitlam in 1975.

United front is the best tactic

While socialists reject watering down their program to achieve coalitions with capitalist parties, they will work with everyone bar fascists to defeat a common enemy or to win a reform. In the process we try to win over the rank and file of our opponents.

The world alliance of left parties created by Lenin and Trotsky after the Russian Revolution, the Comintern, called this a ‘United Front tactic’. At its fourth Congress in 1922 the Comintern wrote “The united front tactic is simply an initiative whereby the Communists propose to join with all workers belonging to other parties and groups and all unaligned workers in a common struggle to defend the immediate, basic interests of the working class against the bourgeoisie… while accepting the need for discipline in action, Communists must at the same time retain both the right and the opportunity to voice, not only before and after but if necessary during actions, their opinion on the politics of all the organisations of the working class without exception. The waiving of this condition is not permissible in any circumstances. Whilst supporting the slogan of maximum unity of all workers’ organisations in every practical action against the capitalist front, Communists cannot in any circumstances refrain from putting forward their views… To refuse to criticise one’s allies leads directly and immediately to capitulation to reformism.”

United Front-style work

Today there are no mass parties of the working class in Australia and united front work in the traditional sense is not currently on the cards. In fact there is not a mass party of the Left, for ordinary people, at all. The building of such a party is the task at hand. That said the Socialist Party uses a united front-style of work on a day-to-day basis.

We mix with Greens, rank and file ALP members, non-party political community groups, as well as many individuals who are not party-aligned. Our attitude is to seek the widest possible unity in action with these people and organisations on day-to-day issues in the trade union field, on campus, in the community and Council work and on specific campaigns.

While working together for a common and specific goal, we also attempt to skilfully and respectfully put forward our own socialist policies on issues and campaigning tactics that can lead to a victory. We also raise the need for socialism as the only way to guarantee the permanency of reforms won under capitalism.

We do not water-down our position in order to get non-socialist layers to work with us. We are always honest about our politics. We are socialist, we want you to be a socialist, but if you don’t agree right now, we are still willing to work together to improve the lot of working class people.

By Stephen Jolly

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