Socialists, the ALP and the working class

November 23, 1994

ROGER CLARKE continues a debate about the Australian Labor Party and the role socialists should or shouldn't play in it.

Jim McIlroy (GLW #164) agrees that the isolation of socialists from the working class is our key problem, so rather than chasing red herrings, it is worth following up by attempting to understand why this isolation has occurred. Jim says, "there is a strong objective basis for this relative isolation". This may be true, but the reasons that we can address are the subjective reasons, i.e. wrong approaches or mistaken analyses by socialists, which are contributing to our problem.

Jim's article contains some indications of these subjective reasons. His article was entitled, "The ALP left: isolated from socialism"; yet instead of looking to bring socialism to the ALP left, Jim denounces the entire ALP as "an enemy agent in the midst of the working class". The use of this language from the "social-fascist" era can only have the effect of widening the gulf between the ALP left and non-ALP socialists.

The "theoretical" justification for this self-isolating stance is that the "nature" of the ALP is "capitalist". Lenin said, according to Jim, that the ALP was a "liberal capitalist" party. Not quite. Lenin (Collected Works, Vol. 19) described the ALP as a "liberal-bourgeois" party. In the same article, Lenin said that the ALP was "the unalloyed representative of the non-socialist workers' trade unions". In other words, the ALP (in 1913) was a workers' organisation with "liberal-bourgeois" politics. Jim's formulation blurs the vital distinction between capitalists and non-socialist workers.

Of course a lot has changed since 1913, and in any case a quote from Lenin is not "proof". If we are to decide how socialists should relate to the ALP, then we need to look at the range of political opinions within the ALP today, and at who it now represents. Jim portrays the relationship between the ALP, the union officials, and the rank and file union members as all being one way — the "mates" dominate the ALP, which dominates the officials, who dominate their members. Increasingly it is like this, but it is important not to overlook the expectation by workers that the officials and the ALP should represent them. Socialists should be alongside workers who demand that officials and ALP politicians live up to these expectations.

From the "top down" view, union affiliation to the ALP is simply the mechanism by which the ALP controls the unions. This leads to the serious political mistake of campaigning within unions to oppose affiliation to the ALP. The union affiliation was intended to give (and still does give) the unions a voice in the ALP. Socialists should defend the concept of unions "dictating" to the ALP, against the Liberals' view that it is above the station of workers to have political influence. Admittedly, this "influence" is generally exercised by union officials, without reference to the rank and file. But this situation must be remedied from within the unions.

If the majority of members vote not to affiliate, then that decision should be respected. But another possibility, which socialists should argue for, is that the union membership democratically debates the policies that it urges upon the ALP, and that officials be accountable to the membership for votes cast on the members' behalf at an ALP conference. This would require changes within the unions. But if the class struggle is to revive, democratic changes within the unions will, in any case, have to be fought for.

Jim writes, "What Roger Clarke is beginning to dispute is the fundamental strategy of building an independent revolutionary socialist party, separate from the Labor left". Actually, without that last phrase, I don't dispute the stated strategy at all. However, the phrase, "separate from the Labor left", is the spoonful of tar. If the ALP were just a conservative rump (as it appears the New Zealand Labour Party has become), Jim's strategy would be justified; but Jim agrees with the assertion that "the ALP is the only party in Australia with any reasonable claim to be connected with the working class". Why on earth then, in our present situation, choose separation from the left of the ALP as a "fundamental strategy"?

An extreme example of the "building in separation" strategy comes from Britain. The British Socialist Workers' Party, an avowedly "Leninist" party, has applied this strategy since the mid-1970s. Its membership is estimated to be between 6000 and 8000, which makes it easily the largest "party" of its type; but it is a sect, and its political judgments are sometimes quite bizarre. For example, in the SWP publication, Socialist Review (#153), the book, Without Fear of Being Happy, is reviewed. This is a book about Lula, and the Brazilian Workers' Party (PT).

As GLW readers will know, the PT is, by any sensible criterion, a real workers' party, arguably the largest in the world. Yet there are indications that the PT is a reformist rather than a revolutionary party. For example, in "The Workers Party and the Brazilian elections" (GLW #161) it states, "The PT had asked the main trade union federations to defer any strike action until after the elections, arguing that it might have an adverse effect on Lula's campaign." (Losing some votes from those opposed to strikes, presumably.)

Yet, when the reformist mountain is the size of the PT, any revolutionary Mahomet must go to the mountain. Incredibly, this obvious conclusion is denied by the reviewer in Socialist Review. He refers to the Pinochet coup in Chile and concludes, "If this experience is not to be repeated in Brazil, then socialists must ask themselves whether it is not their duty to join now in the task of building a clear revolutionary political leadership outside (sic!) the ranks of the Workers' Party".

Jim (fortunately) is not so "clear" as the British SWP. He cannot be accused of urging Brazilian militants to adopt a strategy of separation from the PT. But "the fundamental strategy of building an independent revolutionary socialist party" is not supposed to be just a tactic, applicable only in Australia. If the strategy leads to positions like that of the British SWP which are clearly wrong in Brazil, then either it is not "fundamental", or something about this idea has been misunderstood. The problem appears to be equating ideological independence with organisational separation.

Australian socialists have to be independent from the illusions of ALP members, including the illusions of many of the ALP left; but they shouldn't fear to belong to the same organisation. Indeed, if the inevitable outcome of socialists being in an organisation with non-socialists, is that the socialists get corrupted — what sorry socialists we are! If the ALP represents the trade unions, isn't is crucial to the link between socialists and organised workers, that socialists do not abandon the ALP to the tender mercies of the "mates"? It is not a question of whether work inside the ALP is a bed of roses, it is a question of what socialists have to do.

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