Should socialists join the ALP?

March 15, 1995

Reflections on a debate by Roger Clarke

Doug Lorimer (GLW #175) takes me to task for saying that "if the ALP were a capitalist party, there would be no reason for socialists to work inside the ALP". He suggests that I should therefore oppose working inside parliament, as parliament is a "capitalist institution". But the reason for socialists not to join a capitalist party is not opposition to participation in any capitalist institution, but the necessity for the working class to form its own party.

Socialists who belong to a working class party, or who openly advocate forming such a party, cannot at the same time belong to a party of the capitalist class. Taking this stance does not imply that socialists cannot work inside parliament, as representatives of the working class.

Lorimer seems to view the debate between Jim McIlroy and myself as primarily about the taxonomy of political parties; whether socialists should or should not join the ALP appears to him as a secondary issue, unrelated to what sort of party the ALP happens to be. That is not how I saw the debate, and I doubt if Jim saw it that way either. We initially disagreed over how to respond to George Georges rejoining the ALP and calling on socialists to help strengthen the left wing of the ALP. I thought Georges' proposal deserved serious consideration, but Jim thought it was doomed to failure.

In our subsequent exchanges over whether the ALP is a "liberal capitalist" party, we were both attempting to produce reasons for and against joining the ALP. When Jim subsequently described working inside the ALP as a "subsidiary tactic", that the DSP might use in the future, I argued that this implied at least a partial retraction of the DSP's analysis of the Labor Party.

Apparently not, according to Lorimer. Yet the DSP's position could be stated consistently, simply by saying that the Liberals are a capitalist party (which no socialist would ever join?), whereas the ALP is a grossly inadequate workers' party (and socialists decide to join, or not to join, according to current circumstances). That way the discussion could get back to the substantive issue — how should socialists relate to the ALP today.

Another semantic issue that has bogged us down is the meaning of "bourgeois". Lorimer is right to give "capitalist" as a possible synonym, but wrong to imply that the two words are always equivalent. If the opinions held by workers are being described, "pro-capitalist" is clearly the meaning intended. For example, Engels lamented (in a letter to Marx, 1858) that "the English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois". Replacing "bourgeois" by "capitalist" would make Engels' statement into nonsense.

The meaning of "bourgeois" was not the only question of accuracy. The words "liberal capitalist" do not occur in Lenin's 1913 article, therefore Jim McIlroy should not have placed them within quotation marks — that was inaccurate quotation. Whether the words were also inaccurate as a paraphrase depends not only on whether "liberal capitalist" is equivalent to "liberal-bourgeois", but also on whether an essential element of Lenin's characterisation of the ALP was being omitted.

My attempt at a paraphrase of Lenin's view of the ALP in 1913 was "a workers' organisation with liberal-bourgeois politics". Lorimer is obviously not impressed, but I did provide Lenin's actual words to show the basis of my attempt. Yet Lorimer writes, "If an organisation has a predominantly working-class membership then, according to Clarke, it's a workers' organisation."

Lorimer cannot have overlooked my quotation of Lenin's words "the unalloyed representative of the non-socialist workers' trade unions", because he reproduces these words in his own article. Yet the clear implication is that Lenin's statement, that the ALP was a representative of the trade unions, was my reason for paraphrasing Lenin in the way that I did.

To decide which class (or fraction of a class) a party represents, all available evidence should be used. I agree with Lorimer that what a party actually does is of crucial significance. But this is no reason not to consider other information, such as the stated objectives of the party — especially if those objectives have recently been debated and amended at a party conference.

In Britain the Labour Party's "Clause Four" of the party constitution refers to the "common ownership" of the means of production. This is less vague than the ALP's "democratic socialisation" ... "to the extent necessary" etc. The present leader of the British Labour Party (Tony Blair) is attempting to "modernise" Clause Four, whereas Keating appears to be untroubled by the ALP's "socialist objective". The Alliance for Workers' Liberty, a British Marxist organisation, is waging a campaign to retain Clause Four — providing an instructive example of revolutionary socialist work within the Labour Party.

This experience cannot be straightforwardly transferred to Australia, principally because of the above-mentioned circumstance that there is at present no battle around the "socialist objective" within the ALP. However this example does demonstrate that vulgar "materialism", which dismisses a party's constitution as "paper objectives", is inadequate as a guide to action.

Lorimer alleges that "Clarke makes one last attempt to lean on Lenin" and "Clarke wishes to dismiss Lenin" (simultaneously?!). The same allegations could be levelled at the DSP — they "lean on" Lenin for his characterisation of the politics of the ALP, but "dismiss" Lenin when he says the ALP represents the trade unions. If I had carried on in this manner, would Lorimer not have been tempted to respond that Lenin's article was written in 1913, but the real issue is whether the ALP today is still some sort of representative of the trade unions?

The caption on the photo accompanying Lorimer's article says: "The ALP defends the union-busting interests of the capitalist class against the working class". Does this mean that the ALP today is an appallingly bad representative of the trade unions, or that it does not represent the trade unions at all? If the DSP asserts the latter, then this contradicts what Lenin wrote in 1913. Does that mean that the DSP dismisses Lenin as irrelevant to Australia today? Obviously not, because Lenin wrote a good deal more than his 1913 article.

Thus Lorimer's outrage at my use of Frank Noakes' comment that Lenin "lived long ago and far away" is misplaced. The background was that I had pointed out that "liberal capitalist party" was not a quotation from Lenin, yet Jim McIlroy unblushingly repeated his claim that it was. I had a distinct feeling that I was arguing with a recorded message. Rather than repeat myself, I "leaned on" Frank Noakes; but I also quoted Trotsky to the effect that Lenin had contributed eternal treasures to humanity. The distinction between rejecting some minor aspect of Lenin's thought and rejecting Lenin's major works is so painfully obvious that it shouldn't be necessary to have to make it.

Lorimer gives "armed insurrection" as an example of a "tactic" that is doomed to failure today, but maybe not tomorrow. Very good. However, I was not announcing some supposed law about tactics in general, I was talking about working within the ALP. If conditions are likely to become favourable in (say) five years time, then it is not true that joining the ALP now, in anticipation of changing conditions, is doomed to failure.

It is puzzling when DSP spokespersons say that work within the ALP cannot succeed, but the DSP might adopt this tactic in the future! It is also puzzling that Lorimer sees the need to pontificate that "Clarke fails to understand that a tactic that may become applicable in the future is not necessarily correct today". Heaven help me, if I fail to understand such a platitude!

There is a certain justice in Lorimer's complaint that I have not addressed the specifics of how (in Australia today) socialists could work inside the ALP — but there is a certain injustice as well. Discussion of specifics was premature while it was still being alleged that the whole idea is doomed to failure. It is welcome that Lorimer now agrees that working within the ALP is possible. Unfortunately this agreement has been expressed in a very confusing way, and we still disagree on what should be actually done today, as opposed to possibly done in the future.

Lorimer is probably right to say that "the proof of the pudding is in the eating". In other words, we probably need more experience before the best way forward becomes apparent. In the meantime, we need a sober assessment of what current strategies have achieved. Lorimer says that the DSP "is still small", but does not inquire why. Spokespersons for the ISO and the SPA similarly concede that their party "is still small", again without asking why.

The historical evidence from a number of countries suggests that a party that counterposes itself to the movement of labour against capital will be "still small" in 50 years' time. Marx and Engels had already realised this in 1848; they wrote in the Communist Manifesto that "The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties".

Many Marxists think that this approach of Marx and Engels has been superseded by Lenin's concept of a vanguard organisation. In fact there is no conflict between Marx/Engels and Lenin, provided it is not assumed that the "vanguard" must always take the form of a separate political party.

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