Building a united socialist youth movement

October 23, 2002


[The following is an abridged version of a talk presented at a panel discussion on the Socialist Alliance at the 31st national conference of the socialist youth organisation Resistance, held in Melbourne, September 27-30. Simon Butler is the national coordinator of Resistance.]

I think that when we look back at this conference in the years to come, we will recognise it as one of the most important and historic Resistance national conferences.

Over the next three days we'll be discussing how to best build a movement against the impending threat of an imperialist war on Iraq, a war which is backed wholeheartedly by the Australian government. We'll also be assessing our work in the refugees' rights movement and our solidarity work with the Palestinian struggle. We'll be working out how we can best promote feminism in the face of the anti-woman backlash and making preparations to resist the Howard government's attempts to further corporatise tertiary education.

But perhaps the most important decision we will be called upon to make at this conference is how Resistance should orient to the Socialist Alliance, in the wake of the decision by the Democratic Socialist Party national executive (NE) to propose to the December 28-January 1 DSP congress that the DSP cease to operate as a public organisation and function as a tendency within the Socialist Alliance.

What we'll be considering is the role Resistance can play in furthering and strengthening the socialist movement in this country. How can we best contribute to the cause of left regroupment? How can we, an independent socialist youth organisation, contribute to breaking down some of the sectarian habits of the past and help build a united anti-capitalist front against imperialist war, racist scapegoating and the neo-liberal austerity drive?

On September 8, the Resistance national executive welcomed, and stated its support for, the DSP's initiative to put left regroupment through the Socialist Alliance firmly on the political agenda. We agreed with the DSP NE that the objective conditions required for a thorough-going left regroupment exist in Australia, and that the positions arrived at by the Socialist Alliance thus far have demonstrated that the political basis for collaboration extends beyond the minimalist platform adopted by the Socialist Alliance at its founding conference last year.

The Resistance NE also agreed with the DSP NE that genuine left regroupment will come about, and can only come about, on the basis of socialists rising to the objective challenges thrown up by the class struggle itself.

We acknowledge that differences exist and will continue to exist within the socialist movement. But we recognise that the current differences among affiliate organisations, how important they really are, and whether they really justify separate organisational forms, can be best tested out in practice. They can be tested in real life, in real struggle and through serious discussion in the context of ongoing joint work in the framework of the Socialist Alliance.

So we feel that the Australian socialist movement has a big responsibility before it and we'll learn a lot more about the practical steps we need to take as we go. And we are in for some interesting debate and experimentation too.

I'm very pleased that our comrades from the International Socialist Organisation, Workers Power and Socialist Alternative have agreed to contribute to this forum today. It's a healthy sign that marks the beginning of a much needed dialogue about the best way to build a revolutionary socialist movement.

One of the major factors that led the Resistance NE to support the DSP initiative, and why the conference will be asked to support it as well, is that we recognise that there will not be a mass socialist party in this country without some form of left regroupment. No single organisation can hope to simply build itself, at the expense of the other small groups, to become the mass revolutionary vanguard party. So, because we're serious about making, and not just playing at, revolution we're treating the question of socialist unity with the gravity it deserves.

If we are honest with ourselves then we have to admit that the existing points of dispute between the left organisations must be intensely frustrating, or even downright incomprehensible, to a layer of anti-capitalist and socialist-minded workers and young people. Does the Australian socialist left present an appealing picture to these potential socialists at the moment? How many people here remember that famous sketch in Monty Python's film The Life of Brian where the two revolutionaries, from the Judean People's Front and the People's Front of Judea respectively, go toe to toe denouncing each other as sectarian sell-outs and counter-revolutionaries. If I remember correctly they end up fighting each other, screaming and writhing in the mud, while the occupying Roman legionaries march by unchallenged!

OK, it's just a joke from a movie. It's obviously a caricature of the left. But is there a shade of truth in there as well? We can't deny that there are many, many people, perhaps thousands, who should be part of our movement but stand back because they don't understand why we're divided. The disunity on the Australian left depresses them. It wards them off. Greater socialist unity would present us with an opportunity to inspire and recruit a wide layer of class-conscious militants who simply refuse to choose between the existing affiliate organisations.

Resistance thinks that, as it exists now, the Socialist Alliance has a crucial weakness — its active membership is simply too old. The largest proportion of the current active membership of the Socialist Alliance are products of the youth radicalisation of the 1960s and '70s — products of a previous rather than the current youth radicalisation.

If the alliance is to achieve its full potential then it will need to attract and involve far more radical young people.

In fact, we think that a successful left regroupment and the construction of a mass revolutionary party will be nigh impossible unless the socialist movement can attract the layer of radicalising young people we know have been developing anti-system, anti-capitalist politics under the influence of the movement against corporate globalisation. The majority of these young people, who have mobilised at the S11 and M1 protests and elsewhere, have developed their politics outside of the existing socialist left.

The Socialist Alliance project will not succeed if it doesn't attract far greater numbers of young people than it does now.

In all struggles for justice and in all revolutionary movements, youth have always been at the forefront. In every generation, there have been young people — the most politically conscious, the most idealistic and the most committed to those ideals — who have stepped forward, challenged the injustices of class society and fought for its overthrow. Because of this fact, throughout the history of the socialist movement, revolutionaries have placed great importance on attracting young people to the socialist movement and developing youth leaders.

Prior to the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Mensheviks were fond of criticising the Bolshevik party for the youthfulness of its membership. Lenin replied to this by paraphrasing Engels: "Is it not natural that youth should predominate in our party? We are the party of the future, and the future belongs to the youth. We are a party of innovators, and it is always the youth that most eagerly follows the innovators. We are a party that is waging a self-sacrificing struggle against the old rottenness, and youth is always the first to undertake a self-sacrificing struggle."

James P. Cannon, a founder of the US Communist Party and then the Trotskyist movement in the US, made a similar point which is instructive for us today. "The mark of a living movement", he observed, "is its ability to attract the young. Wherever you see a party anywhere that has no young people, you can say for sure that its prospects are dim. The experienced troops of every army, even the best, always need renewal and replenishment."

Resistance believes, therefore, that we have a special role to play in building a stronger, united left. The Socialist Alliance is a "party of the future" (as Lenin put it) which needs to attract more youth. And Resistance is a national organisation of young socialists committed to left unity.

We seek to convince the membership of the alliance that they would benefit from developing a relationship of close political solidarity with an independent socialist youth organisation like Resistance.

For most of its history Resistance has maintained this type of relationship with the DSP and both organisations have benefited. But this conference will be asked to vote to include a new section in our constitution declaring our support for, and pledging to build, the Socialist Alliance.

We think that a fraternal relationship with an independent socialist youth organisation will be the best way the Socialist Alliance will be able to win more young people to its ranks.

We've learnt from our own experience that a socialist youth organisation is the best way to convince young people to commit themselves to becoming active participants in the struggle for socialism.

An independent socialist youth organisation also has the advantage that it allows young radicals to develop their skills rapidly through having the chance to make their own mistakes, learn their own lessons, take responsibility for their own organisation, take their own initiatives and elect their own leaders. It helps to train future revolutionary cadre.

The alliance would benefit greatly from such a relationship. Throughout its history Resistance has served as a valuable reservoir of recruitment and renewal for the DSP. We intend to bring this same benefit to the Socialist Alliance.

So we intend to remain an independent youth organisation and we want to convince other young socialists who support the idea of a left regroupment through the Socialist Alliance to join Resistance and contribute to building a new and far larger socialist youth organisation.

If other socialists join Resistance then its political nature will necessarily become more diverse. It will be composed of activists from different traditions.

Now one question that might be asked is why doesn't Resistance close up shop, join the alliance as a unit, and work out the ways to build a completely new youth organisation from scratch somewhere down the track.

But how could we agree to this? We want to offer our full and complete solidarity to the alliance and we want to convince other young socialists who support and are active in the alliance to join Resistance in order to help build a stronger left. But we don't want to begin a socialist regroupment process with the socialist left in a weaker position than it was prior to the regroupment.

That would be the result if Resistance was to dissolve with a only a vague plan to form another youth organisation sometime later. It would weaken the whole left, especially its ability to attract and organise radical youth in the immediate period ahead.

We want to preserve and maintain the national spread, the profile, the household name, the experiences, the hundreds of young people who have joined Resistance this year, the authority, the apparatus and the reputation that we have painstakingly built up over the past 35 years. We want to keep these things intact, not for any sectarian reasons, but so the entire socialist left can use them.

This is a crucial point. We want to offer what we have built up so it can be used for the Australian socialist left as a whole. It would be an immense mistake to throw away what Resistance has achieved up until now.

We think the political basis for uniting socialist youth into a single socialist youth organisation will exist if we all agree on the importance of building the alliance. We don't think it is important that we agree on who was right about UN troops and East Timor, the exact class nature of Cuba or (God forbid) the class nature of the now non-existent Soviet Union. No-one on the left has to change their opinions about these things in order for us to act together today.

No doubt we will have some debates about these and other issues but we have to ask ourselves whether they really justify being in separate organisations. The Resistance NE thinks that the process of joint collaboration on the socialist politics that we all share in common will make it possible to build up increasing trust, solidarity and comradeship, and thus lay the basis for moving forward toward creating a unified socialist party and a unified socialist youth organisation.

From Green Left Weekly, October 23, 2002.
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