Report on 'Towards a Socialist Australia'

[The following report was presented to the Socialist Alliance Melbourne district meeting on December 6, 2011 and later to Geelong branch. While it was speaking to the first draft of the resolution (see Towards a Socialist Australia), I think the main points made remain relevant.]

Purpose of the resolution

The basic purpose of the document is to make a clear, logical and succinct case for socialism and explain what we want. We have policy resolutions on a great range of questions but nothing that pulls it all together and explains what we are fighting for, the big picture — a fundamental change in the way our society and economy is organised and what some of the key elements of this are.

The document is an extended argument. It is not really a conjunctural document — except, of course, to outline the looming catastrophe of climate change and an economic crisis which may well end up being worse than the Great Depression. The document doesn't mention everything about Australian or world politics and I think it would be a mistake if we tried to do that. In my view it's concerned with the main line of the argument.

The text is not burdened with lots of references for figures quoted (although they could be added in small print at the end if this is thought to be desirable).

If we can get broad agreement on a document like this, I think it would be a big step forward for the Socialist Alliance and a big element in solidifying us around an overall vision of what we are struggling for.

What will we do with the resolution? If we adopt this document, however modified by the conference, I imagine we would print it up — like the climate charter or our Gender Agenda. It would be something very useful to be able to distribute to interested people and to initiate discussions around, especially with new members.

Some key ideas in document

Overall, the global political temperature is heating up: the physical temperature is climbing and climate change is definitely here and worsening; and the world economy is in growing crisis. These things are fueling an unprecendented rise of opposition to the insanities of neoliberalism on a global scale.

The draft explains that the our government is making no meaningful response to climate change. For example, the corporate rush to open more and more coal mines is truly insane.

And official claims that Australia is protected from the storm buffeting world capitalism are demonstrably untrue. Several decades of neoliberal attacks have already made life very stressful for a considerable number of people. And we can be sure that a lot more misery will find its way here even if it develops more slowly than in Europe.

There is also the scandal of continuing Indigenous oppression and disadvantage, exemplified by the continuing bipartisan attack of the Intervention.

Can't reform or control capitalism

On thing that is clearly implied but not openly stated is that we don't think you can in any realistic way reform or control capitalism. I think it's fair to say that the Greens' view is that through legislation the excesses and abuses of the system can be reined in. However, in my opinion there is absolutely no evidence that this will ever really happen.

Even if there are resonable laws on the books, they are flouted, ignored or simply not enforced. Look at Baiada Poultry in Victoria, for instance. How could a big company break the law by paying so many workers cash in hand for so long and no government agency ever did anything whatsoever about it?

Working people create the wealth of society

The labour of working people creates the wealth of society. The rich are wealthy not because of their genius but because they are able to appropriate the toil of the masses.

The bosses are able to do this because they own the means of production. We have no alternative — we have to work for them. We get wages, they get the surplus — the profits.

The economy is a social enterprise, a product of the work of the mass of the people yet it is controlled by a handful of people, the 1% and is run solely to make profits for them. That is the source of our problems and it has to be addressed up front.

Economy must be in hands of society

While privatisation (especially of basic services like health, education, power and water) is very unpopular, there is almost zero public discussion on reversing the sell-offs and even less about expanding the public sector to new areas of the economy. It is not discussed and very few people would believe it is remotely feasible.

But we can't duck or fudge this issue. The corporations which control our economy, on which we all depend, must be taken over by society, that is, nationalised — or, if you prefer, socialised. Unless this is done, nothing can be changed; we certainly won't stop climate change. The late socialist ecologist Barry Commoner once said that the role of the corporations and bringing them under social control was a big unspoken taboo in the United States. That's still true and here as well.

Should absolutely everything be owned by society, right down to a corner store? We don't need to pronounce on that. The draft simply says the key sectors of the economy (what is often termed the 'commanding heights') should be in public hands. In my opinion all the corporations should be taken over. Small businesses (a store, etc.) are not the problem.

Critique of capitalist democracy

The draft contains the basic socialist critique of capitalist democracy — on one level it's real but the formal rights are severely circumscribed in practice. As long as the economy is privately owned it will be limited.

For example, dissident voices are largely excluded from the mass media, which is mainly privately owned. Look, for instance at the progressive comedian Catherine Deveny. For some years she had a column in the Age. She had a very high profile and really served it up on some issues. But she fell from grace and the paper axed her. Now you hardly hear about her. The mass media has a tremendous power and reach and ability to shape public concerns and perceptions.

Whole areas of social life are excluded from democratic oversight — the economy and the state machine (law, the government departments, etc).

Murdoch has one vote; so does the homeless person living in a box under a bridge. But what does that vote mean in practice? It's very much a soporific — you suffer in daily life but at the ballot box we are all equal. But after you have your vote things go on exactly as before — or your workplace may be closed and you are out of a job. You didn't get to vote on that.

For real democracy

The draft sketches some of the main changes we want to see. First of all, the economy should be in the hands of society. Control of the social economy is a fundamental basis of people's power.

It's true the draft doesn't outline a new institutional framework (i.e., organs of people's power) but that would be rather speculative and what is outlined is certainly radical enough!

With their latest pay rise our federal pollies have risen into the social stratosphere compared to the mass of their constituents so our demand that MPs work for average workers' wages plus the other points is effectively a call for a new system.

Public officials should be elected — judges, heads of departments, etc. We can argue exactly who but the elective principal should be seriously extended into the state bureaucracy.

Likewise workers should control their workplaces and elect their managers.

Economic plans (at all levels: central, regional, local) should be discussed and the key elements voted on.

The road to the future

It is pointless to set down some schema about exactly how socialism will come about. There have been so many variants and history will doubtless show us new ones in the future.

But the main the main lesson of all history is that no progressive change will come about without a big struggle. The capitalists will not give way unless they are compelled to do so and the only force that can do this is the organised, united, mobilised power of the people.

All sorts of campaigning organisations can play a part. But the classes oppressed by capitalism need above all a political leadership, i.e., a mass militant socialist party which unites as many as possible of those actually playing a leading role in the struggle.

Beyond these basic points we don't really need to go here.

What would a socialist government do?

Paragraph 69 deals with the hoary old reproach addressed to socialists that we think everything will automatically be miraculously changed the day after capitalism has been abolished.

History is made by human beings and mistakes, detours and relapses are all possible. All we claim is that by taking control of the economy and establishing a system of peoples power we have established the best possible framework for moving forward and tackling the problems inherited from the past.

Is socialism possible?

What should we say here? In my opinion we have to mention all the polemics of the ruling class ideologists against socialism and what lies at the heart of them, that is, the ludicrous notion than an appeal to greed is better that banking on solidarity and social cooperation.

I think we also need to at least mention Stalinism. If we don't other people will raise it: what about the Soviet Union etc? Some comrades don't want anything explicit here which would be a barrier to joining up with people from the old CPs, from the Maoist or state capitalist traditions. I understand that but I think we have to find a formulation which says or implies that the future will be different, otherwise I think the document will be unconvincing on this point.