The Socialist Alliance's Sue Bolton and Socialist Alternative's Mick Armstrong addressed a packed public forum on left unity in Melbourne on May 21.
Unity discussions have been taking place between the groups since last year. The forum attracted about 140 people, including individuals and observers from other left groups.
Armstrong opened with an outline of the attack on the working class over the past three decades, the role of the Australian Labor Party and the Greens, the limitations of the Australian Council of Trade Unions in challenging the neoliberal, pro-austerity agenda of the Labor government, and the need to rebuild a militant current within the labour movement.
In the context of the European economic and social crises, Armstrong stressed the need to build “a fighting socialist movement, in order to challenge capitalism and overthrow the system in order to lay the basis for a planned society, to meet human need.”
Armstrong said his organisation is taking the steps towards greater unity seriously, and such a process would attract a layer of activists outside both organisations.
A number of theoretical and historical differences exist between the groups, which Armstrong emphasised should not be dismissed as irrelevant, as well as differences over strategy and tactics, priorities, attitudes to the Greens and elections.
However, Armstrong said that these should not rule out unity: “These are issues that can be discussed out in a united organisation and tested out in practice, and we have gone through a version of this process with the RSP" — referring to the recent merger of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (albeit a much smaller organisation) into Socialist Alternative.
The merger process with the RSP, according to Armstrong, has meant, “Neither has had to abandon their opinions, or [abandon] being able to raise them publicly.”
On the question of what basis there is for unity between the two organisations, Armstrong said Socialist Alternative's view was that “The basis is a revolutionary program and practice.”
Such a program, Armstrong said, would not deal with every nuance, but its centrality would be “the need to get rid of capitalism, the self-emancipation of the working class, liberation for all the oppressed, opposition to nationalism and for a democratic and planned society with an environmentally sustainable economy.”
It would require an active membership with a party-building orientation, according to Armstrong. “A membership trained in Marxism, and which intervenes in the student movement, the union movement and broader society.” It would also require “a democratic organisation, with ample room for minority positions.”
No basis exists in the Australian context for a broad party along the lines of SYRIZA in Greece, according to Armstrong, at least not in “the next couple of years”, but he said although the period was “flat”, there are still opportunities for socialists to advance and grow — such as the May 14 student strike, the equal marriage campaign and the recent Grocon workers’ rights dispute.
Armstrong said a united organisation would inspire others to get involved, including an older, somewhat disillusioned layer of activists, and left-leaning workers.
The prospect of unity, he stressed, was all the more important with the possibility of a Tony Abbott government. He encouraged more practical work between the two organisations over the coming period. Armstrong said the unity process couldn't be pushed through within six to nine months, but neither should it take too long — five years would turn it into a "farce".
Bolton opened her talk focusing on the twin political imperatives for left unity — the need to respond to the economic and ecological crises. Bolton said there have been mass movements and uprisings in response, but the left is still relatively weak in Western imperialist countries “where capitalist ideological domination of the working class is strongest”.
However, she said there has been a break from capitalist hegemony in Latin America being led by Venezuela — albeit under threat from imperialism.
Bolton also pointed to the impact of the ALP on unions’ ability to organise and fight back, its promotion of racist scapegoating, the intensification of attacks that are now a certainty under the likely election of an Abbott-led government and the dangers of workers and unionists looking to right-wing populism for answers.
Bolton said “the left has to go beyond propaganda to provide a lead by advocating alternative demands that can be struggled around” and that a united left could play a critical role in convincing workers of alternative solutions worth fighting for.
The class impacts of the ecological crisis were taken up by Bolton, and the importance of the socialist movement seriously orienting to the climate movement in order to focus it on the “real cause of climate change — capitalism and its destructive practices”.
Bolton said many potential members of left groups are repelled by the division and sectarianism on the left, “but could be drawn into the orbit of a new party if it were clearly non-sectarian, outward looking and democratic”.
“Orienting towards these people doesn't mean we have to soften our politics, but it does mean that we have to go beyond general slogans and explain our positions carefully and without jargon.”
Bolton clarified that the political orientation of the Socialist Alliance is revolutionary and that while agreement with Marxism has never been a basis for membership, the party promotes the study and understanding of Marxism as a guide to action.
“A transitional approach to socialist politics” has guided the Alliance's practice since the start, Bolton said, and this “doesn't represent a watering down of politics, but translating socialist and revolutionary ideas into language and concepts that people can understand.”
Participation in elections was identified as an area of difference between the groups, and Bolton explained that, along with extra-parliamentary action in the social movements (which has been a feature of the Alliance since its formation), elections “provide the opportunity to make the socialist program concrete” while being firm in an understanding that “the only way to change the balance of class forces is through the struggle of the mass movement”.
Bolton stressed that while people have widespread illusions in parliamentary democracy, socialists can't destroy it simply by arguing against it: "On the contrary, workers and the oppressed can only be convinced that parliament is an instrument of capitalist rule when this argument is backed up by their own experience."
At a recent meeting of its national leadership body, Socialist Alternative voted to support Socialist Alliance candidates in the upcoming federal election, including publishing Socialist Alliance campaign material in their newspaper and website, as well as supporting the Alliance campaign in their editorial coverage of the election.
The kind of left unity the Socialist Alliance is seeking, according to Bolton, “cannot be one that involves the membership of one organisation entering the other in their current form with their current outlook and practice.
“It will have to be a new organisation that builds on the strengths of both groups,” and one that “should not abandon any significant areas of engagement of either group”, lest it become bigger in size but result in “a political weakening of the socialist movement as a whole”.
Bolton emphasised that if socialism “is to be more than just a good idea,” the left has to “wage a permanent campaign to link up with the activists and leaders of the working class and oppressed groups who are fighting capitalist oppression” and that the two organisations have a duty to work together to build a stronger pole of leadership in this struggle.