On Wednesday March 26 about fifty mainly young people attended a debate between the Socialist Party (SP) and Socialist Alternative (SA) in the New Council Chambers at Trades Hall in Melbourne. The topic of the debate was ‘strategies for building revolutionary organisations’.
All other meeting rooms at Trades Hall on the night were being used for the annual Melbourne Comedy Festival. Two punters turned up to Trades Hall and asked staff if they could still buy tickets. They thought the debate was part of the Comedy Festival – so rare is it for socialists to sit down and discuss in an organised way!
While socialists have been debating the best way forward for building our organizations since the time of Marx, this recent debate was sparked by the release of a book written by leading SA member Mick Armstrong. The book is titled ‘From little things big things Grow’.
Kirk Leonard, a high school student and member of SP chaired the debate. SP National Organizer Anthony Main spoke first followed by Mick Armstrong from SA. Their 20 minute introductions were followed by contributions from the floor on a roughly equal basis. The two speakers replied at the end for 15 minutes each.
Anthony Main’s introduction set a positive and comradely tone. He told the audience that part of the purpose of the debate was to raise the political level of all who attended. Anthony began by outlining the situation in the world for socialists today, and then moving onto the point that socialist organisations have a dual task in today’s world.
He said socialists should not only be producing propaganda and promoting the idea of socialism, but also should be energetically engaging in struggle. In this way socialists are able to build organic links with the working class and develop the cadre of a socialist organisation.
He drew the analogy of his experience as a fitter and turner. It was necessary when he was an apprentice to go to trade school once a week, but also he had to work ‘on the tools’ for the other days of the week. His point was that for socialists learning the theory is only one side of the equation. Many more things need to be learnt in the course of day to day struggle.
Anthony also spoke about SP’s call for a new workers’ party. Such a party would draw wider layers of working class activists into politics around a common anti neo-liberal program. SP would help build such a party and organize within it fighting for socialist policies and militant action.
Mick’s opening remarks centered mainly on the recent experiences in new broad left formations around the world. He outlined the many failures of such parties, who have in many cases shifted to the right. On some occasions these parties have entered into coalition governments with capitalist parties and lost support.
The examples he used including Respect in Britain and the Socialist Alliance in Australia were all false starts as he explained. These points were not in contradiction to the position of the Socialist Party and our International the CWI. In the discussion some SA comrades argued that is was impossible for revolutionaries to work in the same party as reformists, unless the former sold out their ideas. However other SA members did acknowledge the usefulness of a new workers’ party as long as it had the support of a sizeable amount of workers.
SP’s Stephen Jolly pointed out that SA members’ confusion was reflected in their recent article on the Respect fiasco in Britain. At one point the article says: “mass socialist parties like the German and Austrian Social Democratic Parties and the French Socialist Party that did not build on a clear revolutionary basis ended up spectacularly betraying working class interests by supporting World War I. It could not have been otherwise. It is the whole logic of reformism. Having rejected the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and having set out to reform the system via parliament you inevitably end up seeking to run capitalism on behalf of the bosses.”
“Why on earth would socialists want to go through that experience again? Here in Australia we have the graphic example of the ALP, many of whose founders were militant workers who genuinely wanted to challenge the rule of capital. But because they did not have clear Marxist politics, they were unable to prevent the party they had created being turned into an instrument for suppressing the working class. Why do socialists after over 110 years of experience of the ALP want to put their energies into building a party that is politically little different to the ALP of the early 1890s?”
Yet elsewhere in the same article SA argues: “This is not to say that revolutionaries should not in specific circumstances attempt to build new mass workers parties that draw in reformist, centrist and syndicalist forces. In a country like the USA where there is no workers party, only the openly capitalist Republicans and Democrats, a mass Labor Party would be a step forward. Similarly in Australia, Britain, France etc where the traditional social democratic parties are thoroughly wedded to a neo-liberal agenda a mass break to the left to form new workers parties would be a real advance.”
The SA leaders want two bob each way and their rank and file members are told, for now, that a new workers’ party is an impossible amalgamation of revolutionaries and reformists. SP argued that the establishment of mass workers’ parties were always advocated by Marxists, including Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, Connolly, Lenin and Trotsky. Such a mass party mobilizes big layers of the working class, drawing them into political activity and thereby raising their political understanding.
This both attracts a pro-capitalist bureaucratic layer as well as opening up big opportunities for Marxists to build support for socialist ideas. The battle is hard and has no guarantee of success, but the alternative of standing on the sidelines is a surrender by socialists to the pro-capitalist forces in our movement.
SA members also made points about the unlikelihood of a new workers party in the near future in Australia, which we agreed with. SP members made contributions on range of issues from union work, to our view on a new workers party, as well as the limits of focusing on student work as SA do. SP members argued that we need to spread the focus of work over all areas of struggle.
SP members argued that concentrating on student work almost exclusively would negatively effect the organisation and was not a strategy that was employed by any successful revolutionary organization in history. When Anthony spoke he said it has been the tradition of Marxism to push students towards working class struggle therefore bringing students to the standpoint of workers.
SA members responded by saying they had more union members than SP and did do union work. However it became clear that what they described as union work was in fact their members who work selling their magazine and trying to recruit to SA. There is nothing wrong with that, but that is not the sum total of the role of a socialist in a workplace and in a union!
Mick summed up first, admitting that SA’s criticism of leftists who take short cuts and moderate their programme to get an echo in broad formations was not aimed at SP or the CWI. He also admitted SA joining the Socialist Alliance at its inception was a mistake that they had led to a discussion in their ranks later. “Until then we had not seen these questions as that important”, explained Mick. He disagreed that concentrating on student work would create a party incapable on intervening effectively in the workers’ movement.
Anthony disagreed with Mick’s book in his sum up when it argued that the British SWP was the most successful of all the socialist groups there having reached 4,000 members in the 1970s. He explained that our party in Britain during the 1980s then called Militant (now SP), reached 8,000 members. The British Militant led a number of mass struggles, had 3 MPs elected, controlled Liverpool City Council, built more houses than all other Labour Councils added up together it also won control of the 20,000-strong youth wing of the Labour Party and many union executive and shop steward positions.
Anthony explained that not only has our tradition been bringing people from the ideas of reformism to revolution but we have also been at the forefront of fighting opportunism and reformist ideas in the new broad left formations of recent years. Our principled stance led to us splitting with a majority of our Scottish members over the direction they were taking the Scottish Socialist Party, a party that is now a shell of its former self.
As Anthony said, there were really two debates taking place on the night. SA had turned up to attack the concept of revolutionaries dissolving into broad parties. In reality they should have been directing their criticisms to the likes of the Australian DSP and the British SWP. They were in a sense repeating some of SP’s views back to SP!
SP on the other hand were there to debate the issues Mick had raised in his book which is in reality a justification of the their ‘student perspective’. None of these questions were really answered. This type of open and honest discussion is lacking in the workers’ movement and we need more of it. SP thanks SA for the opportunity to discuss some of the problems with building revolutionary organizations and we look forward to more discussions in the future.
By Socialist Party reporters