Search conference: can the left increase unity?

June 5, 2010

One sentence in the final declaration of the Search Foundation’s Left Renewal Conference (From Global Crisis to Green Future) captured the key issue: “Capitalism has been unable to address inequality, war and ecological degradation, and must be replaced by a democratic system that puts human need before greed, and socialises wealth instead of debt.”

A few of the contributors at the May 30-31 Sydney conference, attended by 250 people, didn’t identify as socialists, and opinions about extinct “state socialism” were mixed, but everyone agreed on the need for a radically different organising of society.

The declaration written as a call for “all parts of the left to pursue”. Its points can only be achieved by huge social mobilisation and would be impossible under corporate economic rule and the existing political set-up.

A cynical observer of Australia’s fragmented left might ask: Hasn’t the Search Foundation (set up after the dissolution of the old Communist Party of Australia) been chattering about “left renewal” for two decades, without achieving even an atom of such renewal?

Of what possible value is a conference where Search members replay the scratchy old record of CPA disagreements and Search keeps trying — in vain — to get the ALP left and (parts of) the Greens to collaborate?

But “From Global Crisis to Green Future” might turn out to be different for two reasons. Firstly, because of the climate crisis: as the enormity of this threat sinks in, traditional differences on the left get posed in a new light.

The second reason, driven by the first, is the utter incapacity of the Labor party to take meaningful action to stop climate change — everything is counterproductive or too little, too late. Add this bankruptcy to other wretched performances of federal and state ALP governments —on refugees, worker and union rights, Aboriginal rights, privatisation — and the need for a broadly based, anti-capitalist political alternative to Labor could hardly be more stark.

The need to strive for a stronger, more united left force was the conclusion of many conference sessions. When James Goodman from AidWatch spelled out the enormity of the global warming threat and Friends of the Earth leader Cam Walker outlined the strategic and tactical challenges involved for the grassroots climate action movement, the question loomed: how can that growing movement not only strengthen itself, but find the political voice it needs to impose change?

There were hopeful signs. Jim Stanford, economist with the Canadian Auto Workers, spoke of “going on the offensive amidst the crisis”. He put his finger on some key elements of the fightback — “more daily fightback and resistance, motivated by our gut-level refusal to pay for a crisis we didn’t create” and building class-struggle, anti-capitalist leaderships in the labour and social movements.

Dave Kerin, organiser of Eureka’s Future, the workers’ cooperative enterprise that will manufacture solar hot water systems in the Latrobe Valley, inspired the conference with this example of how the union movement can start building socially and environmentally necessary production — green jobs — now.

It’s also an example of how the left, in its various traditions, can start to rebuild sorely needed unity around projects to achieve discernible gains for workers, communities and the environment.

NSW Greens MP John Kaye and Search coordinator Peter Murphy facilitated the conference close and the adoption of the declaration, which committed to: “Strive for practical unity with all left traditions who wish to work together in achieving these outcomes and commit to ongoing discussion and collaboration based on this declaration.”

If that sentiment is acted on, the conference could help turn the tide of left disunity in this country.

[Dick Nichols is the national trade union coordinator of the Socialist Alliance.]

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