'Socialism of the 21st century' and left unity

[I was assigned to draft the Socialist Alliance leaflet below. It was first distributed in Melbourne at the end of March 2010.]

The triumphalism spouted by capitalist apologists in the early 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union has long gone. Today the problems are so obvious: global warming and the world economic slump are shaking the capitalist world and casting a growing shadow over the future.

'Capitalism is the road to hell', as Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez said at the Copenhagen climate conference. The revolutionary process in Venezuela and the bold stand taken by its leader have resurrected the idea of socialism in the consciousness of millions. His call for a 'socialism of the 21st century' has inspired people around the world. And now Chavez has called for a new international socialist organisation which would unite parties and movements that want to fight imperialism and neoliberalism.

But important as solidarity with Venezuela is and much as we may admire Chavez, our fundamental task is to fight for social change right here.

Survival of humanity is at stake

The crisis of climate change is the most terrible in human history and it is real and immediate. It is no longer simply a question of fighting for a more just society — that remains but the question now is whether human society itself can survive. Increasingly all the other problems — imperialist war, mass poverty, intensifying exploitation of working people, racism and discrimination, state repression and so on — will unfold in this framework.

Socialists in the developed capitalist countries have a special responsibility. We live in the belly of the beast whose rapacious and unquenchable thirst for profit is threatening humanity with utter catastrophe.

Far left divided and disunited

Yet the 'far left' — those activists who are committed to struggling against capitalism and who see the need to replace it with an ecologically sustainable, people-centered socialist society — remains, despite great efforts, small and marginalised. There are many reasons for this but the key one — and one that we can actually do something about — is that it is deeply divided and disunited.

At any major protest demonstration an interested independent participant would possibly see about six socialist groups with their stalls, all trying to convince him or her why they should join their particular organisation.

All the far left groups — without exception — have their share of talented, capable leaders and committed members. But the general approach is completely unrealistic, that is, one-by-one recruitment to the point where they grow and eclipse their left rivals and come to dominate the radical movement. This is a scenario which is highly unlikely to happen.

Until we take some serious steps to overcoming this situation the socialist left will not be able to provide the level of leadership required to build really big campaigns that can win victories and draw significant numbers of people into the struggle.

Independent leftists repelled by division

In Australia there is widespread discontent over the various things neoliberal capitalism is doing to our society. There is a lot of disillusionment with the mainstream political parties and a lot of people are looking for alternatives.

Most progressive, left-wing people do not belong to any organisation or are members or supporters of the Greens or the ALP. While some individuals may join a socialist organisation the organised left is too small to attract them on a broad scale. Those who do come closer are most likely to be confused and repelled by the obvious division and disunity.

To convince large numbers of such alienated and disaffected people of the need for fundamental system change or to attract them into a socialist organisation requires a real, sustained move towards genuine left cooperation and unity — including a serious exploration of the possibilities of uniting in a single organisation.

Unity enthuses and inspires

It is a simple fact that serious steps toward left unity inspire and enthuse people whereas needless discord and division discourages people from a closer engagement with the socialist left.

For example, when the global financial crisis first erupted, the various left-wing organisations all held their own forums, all saying much the same thing. The lack of a united approach weakened the overall impact of the socialist position and prevented us from being able to significantly influence the trade unions and workers shaken by the crisis.

Differences no excuse

But what about the differences between the various groups? Aren't they a fundamental obstacle to greater unity? The short and commonsense answer? No, they are not — or, to put it more precisely: No, they shouldn't be.

We all largely agree in our critique of neoliberal capitalism and the need to fight the manifest injustices it creates. We agree on the need to replace dog-eat-dog capitalist society with socialism. This was in fact the experience when a number of the far left groups worked together in Socialist Alliance in previous years. It was relatively easy to get agreement on policy; the problems were elsewhere.

In our opinion the differences which do exist can be contained within a single organisation — provided there is goodwill and a genuine desire to achieve unity and to make it work. Old differences may still recur but hopefully they will express themselves in a new form around the real issues we confront in the struggle rather than in an abstract way (Stalinism vs Trotskyism, 'revolution from below', and so on).

Left unity by itself will not automatically solve all political problems; it is still necessary to work out a correct policy. But unity does create the best framework for doing this.

Socialist Alliance

Socialist Alliance is attempting to demonstrate this approach. As its name suggests, it is a coalition of socialists from a range of political backgrounds and traditions. In January, the Democratic Socialist Party, previously the largest affiliate, dissolved itself and merged all its political and material resources into Socialist Alliance.

Socialist Alliance is an unambiguously anti-capitalist organisation. It is continually developing its policy positions but it is not an ‘ideological’ grouping. It is focussed on relating to the issues which confront us today.

It is worth noting that in a number of other countries sections of the far left have adopted a broadly similar approach.

In France the Trotskyist Ligue Communiste, which originated in the May-June 1968 upheaval, dissolved itself at the start of last year into the New Anticapitalist Party which brings together forces from the far left, the radical ecology movement, immigrant groups and so on. In Portugal some years ago former Trotskyists and Maoists formed the anti-neoliberal Left Bloc; it attracted over half a million votes in the 2009 elections. There are many other examples.

The challenge facing us all

Socialism is at a low ebb in Australia. If we remain disunited and continue to squander so much energy competing with each other we won't be able to fundamentally change this situation. Every real step towards greater left cooperation and unity will make the socialist movement that much stronger and put us in a better position to win a much larger following behind a program of serious social and economic change.

All left-wing groups and currents will be judged by how we contribute to promoting greater left unity and building socialist leadership on the scale required by the crisis facing us.

Some basic steps forward

Building the struggle is key

In our work in the various movements, the primary goal must be to construct genuine broad-based coalitions. These are the best vehicles for drawing in larger numbers of people and really advancing the struggle. Recruitment to one's own group is legitimate but it can’t be the fundamental objective.

Support all socialist candidates

In Victoria this year we will most likely have both federal and state elections. It would be a real step forward if all socialist groups publicly supported the candidates of other socialist organisations (Socialist Alliance, Socialist Party, Revolutionary Socialist Party and Communist Party) and advocated a first-preference vote for them.

We should try to avoid situations where we run against one another. Where problems are likely to arise we should sit down and talk them through.

Socialist Alliance has always adopted this approach. We have always supported other socialist candidates and will continue to do so.

Comradely relations

The different socialist organisations should be able to relate to each other in a comradely way and discuss any differences calmly and objectively. Abusing members of another organisation by calling them 'Stalinists' is unworthy of serious socialists and should be dropped.