By Lisa Macdonald
More than 700 people around the country turned out for the Marxist Educational Conferences, Campaigning for Democratic Socialism, held in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth over the Easter weekend.
Not since the early 1980s, when the former Communist Party of Australia last organised one of its Marxist Summer Schools, has anyone in the Australian left attempted to convene broadly based regional conferences focused on the theories and practices of Marxism. The conferences, organised by the Democratic Socialist Party and the socialist youth organisation Resistance, were addressed by international guests from Indonesia, Russia, the US and the Philippines, as well as more than 180 local speakers.
"The diversity of people, experiences and ideas which were brought together in each city was very inspiring" said conferences coordinator Reihana Mohideen. "Reports from around the country indicate that the resulting discussions and debates were extremely useful. They provided a gauge of the state and tasks of the socialist left in Australia today, and they stimulated a lot of thought and agreement about the various ways we can and need to strengthen the working-class movement, in the short and longer term."
Young people lead
The gatherings brought together activists from all age groups and movements. Commenting on the large proportion of young participants in every city, Mohideen noted, "One of the really interesting things about the conferences was the very high level of interest in and enthusiasm for seeking genuinely radical solutions to the devastation being wreaked by global capitalism.
"This understanding — that if the planet and humanity are to survive we need to fundamentally transform society rather than just tinker around the edges — flies directly in the face of the capitalist class's propaganda about the end of history and of socialism. A lot of people, especially young people, are obviously not buying it."
The indispensable role of young people in bringing about radical social change was repeatedly brought home at these conferences, not only in the actual discussions of past and future struggles for social justice and ecological survival, but also by the passionate and confident participation of so many young people at all of the gatherings.
In the spirit of Marxist renewal that characterised the conferences, participants discussed a large number of theoretical and practical issues in considerable detail — from the history of revolutions and the lessons to be learned, to the strategies and tactics of building the mass movements during the rest of this decade. The discussion at all the conferences, however, centred on a few themes.
On the question of the type of socialism revolutionaries today are fighting for, speaker after speaker addressed the centrality of democracy — both as a means of understanding and combating the legacy of Stalinism, and as an essential element in the process of rebuilding the socialist movement in Australia and internationally.
Russian author and dissident socialist — under both the Brezhnev and Yeltsin regimes — Boris Kagarlitsky summed up the view widely held by conference participants: "The new left must build from the base. It must be both highly organised and profoundly democratic. It must relate to people's real needs and concerns."
The internationalist content was also strong. The numerous sessions which took up this theme reflected, first, the theoretical weight given to this question by democratic socialists attempting to build the working-class movement in the age of imperialism and, secondly, the strengthening ties of solidarity and collaboration between socialist formations around the world.
Socialists around the world are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the liberation of Saigon — a major victory for both the Vietnamese revolutionaries and the US and Australian antiwar movements. The continuing importance of international solidarity and links, in particular between socialists in the Asia Pacific region, was underlined by speakers from East Timor, Bougainville, West Papua, Indonesia and the Philippines.
Indonesian activist Mustaqim Ali, representing the Indonesian Forum for International Solidarity, expressed this, "We have so much to learn from each other as we rebuild socialist movements — the lessons from our pasts and the experiences we are going through today.
"For the new generation of left activists in Indonesia, for example, who are starting almost from scratch in their struggle against the Suharto dictatorship, the exchange of information and ideas, and mutual solidarity in our struggles, will make a big difference in our capacity to defend and extend human rights, democracy and social justice."
A third central theme of the conferences, how to build a political alternative to the ALP, generated intense discussion, with considerable debate around goals, tactics and potentials. Speakers from various trade unions, social movement peak bodies, local issue organisations and Green and socialist parties shared experiences and opinions about electoral work, alliance building between movements and extra-parliamentary campaigning.
While differing on concrete questions of how to proceed, most conference participants were united in the view that the Australian left must work towards developing a broadly based, democratic and active political alternative to social democracy. The discussion also revealed, however, that there is still a lot of work needed on the part of the left to achieve sufficient agreement to transform this goal into a reality.
1995 marks 75 years since the founding of the Communist Party of Australia. The Easter conferences, in bringing together, discussing and aiming to develop Marxist ideas in the current historical context, made a significant contribution to continuing the best of the communist tradition.
In light of the success of these conferences, and in anticipation of a larger and stronger socialist movement in Australia in 12 months' time, plans are already under way for another round of regionally based Marxist Educational Conferences at Easter 1996.