What politics to unite Australia’s left?

December 7, 2012
Towards a socialist Australia seminar, December 2, 2012.

Once again the question of left unity is on the agenda in Australia. There have been exploratory talks between the Socialist Alliance and Socialist Alternative and also between the Socialist Alliance and the Communist Party of Australia (CPA).

The Socialist Alliance and the CPA worked together in a Housing Action election ticket in the Sydney City Council elections this year.

A merger process between Socialist Alternative and the Revolutionary Socialist Party is far advanced and due to be finalised by Easter. This is minor regroupment between organisations that claim 250 and 25 members, respectively. But it is the first experience of left unity by Socialist Alternative with a group coming from outside its International Socialist tradition.

Socialist Alternative magazine recently published an editorial, titled “A new kind of left unity”, which said: “The reality is not only that the far left agrees on much more than it disagrees, but also that historic positions are no necessary guide to contemporary political positions ...

“So what are we proposing? In simple terms: a regroupment of the revolutionary socialist left in Australia. In the period since the great struggles of the 1960s and '70s a great number of socialists have gone through the varied far-left organisations. Many of these organisations have come and gone, and when they went many revolutionaries went with them, not feeling there was another group they could join.

“What we want to create is an organisation that does not start with the historic differences that divide the far left, but a socialist program for Australia today: for revolution; for a Marxist party; against imperialism; against all oppression; against the capitalist state; for workers’ power.

“We are not proposing a 'broad party' that tries to involve all kinds of non-socialist forces. We want a Marxist party, with a clear program and principles. We want a political organisation that operates on the basis of majority decisions, but where minorities have the right to their opinions. We don’t want 'unity' for its own sake, but unity of the forces who want to fight for revolutionary change.”

This new position by Socialist Alternative has prompted some discussion in the left about whether the Socialist Alliance is “revolutionary” or “reformist” and has focused attention on an unfolding debate in Alliance Voices about proposed amendments to its public draft document Towards A Socialist Australia.

The obvious fact is that all these left organisations are united in their aim of replacing the capitalist system with a system based on one in which society's main resources and assets are socially owned and controlled through a democratic system of popular power. All agree that such a political and social revolution is necessary to solve the chronic economic, social and ecological crises of our age.

Our challenge is to win a majority of the working class and other oppressed groups to this perspective and unite them in an active and sustained movement that can bring about an end to capitalism.

The Socialist Alliance comes out of a process that has regrouped socialists from explicitly Marxist groups with socialists who have come out of the Greens and Labor parties or who have never been in the organised left before.

However, Socialist Alliance's politics have never been that of a “broad party” like Respect in Britain or even SYRIZA, although we would be open to taking part in a broader political formation if or when objective conditions in Australia made this possible. We’d be open to this if it were step forward in bringing together broad forces into sustained independent struggle against capitalist rule.

Socialist Alliance's politics began essentially with initial points of agreement on a platform of struggle against the capitalist neoliberal attacks between various small revolutionary socialist groups that worked together to form it in 2001. There was agreement to set aside the relatively minor theoretical differences various tendencies in the left had with each other, work with what we agreed on and then, over time and on the basis of new collective experience in united action, seek to develop greater political agreement.

The new Socialist Alternative position, presented in its editorial in effect agrees with this approach, something on which we should be able to build.

However, if we are going to get anywhere with left unity today we are going to have to find a way to get beyond a false argument within the left about who is really “revolutionary” and who is not, and start discussing, in a constructive way, how best a united left can engage in the struggles against the ills of capitalism.

A united left will make it easier to win more people to socialist politics and it will inspire more militant leaderships to develop in the trade unions and other social movements if we can combine our efforts and resources in a way that increases our combined impact.

So the real question we should be debating is what politics a united left organisation in Australia should have today.

There is a long list of things that we already agree with between the various left groups. But there are also differences in perspectives, priorities, methods of organising and approaches in the various movements.

While the left works to the same general end in the Aboriginal rights, refugee rights, anti-war/peace, civil rights and international solidarity movements, there have been some differences in approach to the environment, women's rights and trade union movements, and about taking part in elections.

There are also differences about what tactical orientation the socialist movement should take towards the Greens and the Labor party. Unlike the longer-standing theoretical differences that have divided the left, these are issues that will immediately affect the left's role in the actual political struggle today. These are differences that need to be discussed and not put aside to be sorted out later.

Some left groups have developed theoretical justifications for abstaining from the environment and women's rights movements, for instance, or from taking part in election campaigns. I think this is a mistake a united left could not afford to take on.

For instance, a united left party in Australia that did not play an active role in the environment movement amid the global climate change crisis would mark a retreat for the left as a whole. This crisis is at an extreme stage, with greater than predicted average global temperature rises imminent. Melting polar caps and the consequent catastrophic permafrost melts will release more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Climate change will shape world history as much as colonialism and imperialism did and a united left needs to take this seriously and take a lead in building the mass movements that are needed to confront this crisis.

Various groups on the left have strengths in different areas of political struggle. Socialist Alternative now has the most students and plays an active role in several social movements, including more recently, a stepped up role in organising solidarity for several militant trade union strikes.

Socialist Alliance has established a small beachhead in electoral politics with two respected and experienced activists, Sam Wainwright and Sue Bolton, as elected local councillors. The Communist Party and the Socialist Party also have local councillors and Steve Jolly has won a lot of respect for his work on Yarra Council. Solidarity members play leading roles in campaigns for refugee rights and against the racist NT intervention.

In the trade union movement, the Socialist Alliance has also won significant respect and some leadership. Several left groups work together (alongside others) in progressive rank-and-file groups in several trade unions, one of which recently won leadership of the Public Service Association, the second biggest union in NSW.

At this stage, Socialist Alliance is the only left group actively involved in the environment movement. We have members playing a leading role in the Stop CSG movement in several cities. We are part of the first mass campaign to replace a coal-powered power station with a solar thermal plant that could deliver 100% renewable energy in Port Augusta. We participate in a publication, Green Left Weekly, that campaigns strongly for a serious and radical program to address climate change and we take this message into all our election campaigns.

A united left in Australia today should use all possible theatres of political struggle to advance this struggle and our combined resources would make it easier to do so. It would build on the work it is already doing together.

[Read Socialist Alternative's Mick Armstrong's reply to Peter Boyle. Also, the joint statement on Socialist Alliance agreeing to endorse Marxism 2013.]


The left has such a grab bag of issues, I believe it fails to recognise the real jewel, not only for left unity but potentially for global unity, is UN intervention for a treaty with the First Nations of Australia. Climate change, social justice, refugees, you'll find it all in the reciprocal culture Aboriginal Australia. Its no revolution, its at least 50,000 years old and that's why it works. Right now we desperately need what the First Nations of Australia have to offer and the only way that will happen is through a healing treaty. Yes there are problems in dealing with the UN but the UN's current incarnation isn't permanent, it can be changed and an international movement can change it. Australia's lack of a treaty gives humanity a moral right at the very least, to insist upon UN intervention in Australia. The first step needs to be a push for UN hearings throughout the lands now known as Australia, to verify for the world the real nature of Australia's frontier war, along with ongoing intergenerational oppression inflicted upon the First Nations of Australia, up to and including 'the interventions'. At that point Australia along with the global community is likely to be much more perceptive to the influences of gross inequality and the need to change, not least and with great urgency, for the reversal of climate change. The healing treaty I believe should then follow, is one that would make Australia a working model for a peaceful, sustainable future, for all of humanity. A people's movement having changed the UN sufficiently for the UN to work on a renewed economic model based on the reciprocal balance, that is intrinsic to First Nations culture. First Nations culture would become the heart and soul of all Australia, with an esoteric depth that would leave Marx behind in a cloud of dust. You want a unified left? Here's a unifying struggle and one that humanity is far more likely to embrace than a recycled Marxist revolution. Trevor Hull

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