Friday, 6 January 2012

On Revolutionary Organisations Today

The following piece is my thoughts on the nature of revolutionary organisations in Australia today; they are mine alone. I am a member of the Socialist Alliance and of SA's youth organisation, Resistance; in the 2011 NSW state election I was a candidate on Socialist Alliance's upper house ticket. My criticisms of any groups or parties in Australia or abroad, including those I am part of, are in not in any way meant to belittle the noble efforts of those who are part of them. Normally I would have sent this article to someone whose opinion I respect before posting it, but this is my raw opinion on the subject, and I'd love to see debate and criticism of it in the comments below.

An activist from Socialist Alternative, with whom I was discussing my decision to leave that group after some months of membership in 2006 and my later decision to join Resistance in 2007, asked me something along the lines of "surely the question of how we organise can't be the reason why you left?" He is an activist for whom I have a lot of respect; although we'd read each others emails on e-lists, we first met at Australia's first national BDS conference, and he is a leading activist in Palestinian solidarity in his home city. We were both in Sydney for the ALP's national conference, at which there were two major protests to support equal marriage rights and against mistreatment of asylum seekers (my photos to follow soon). Yet despite the fact that we were marching side by side, presenting almost identical demands on these two issues, the thing that seemed the most important to him was whether we agreed on the theory of state capitalism and, thus, Cuba's revolution.

In late 2011 I travelled to the Middle East, largely to try and gain insight on (& show solidarity to) the revolutionary struggle being waged there in the last year, so I am someone who thinks a real understanding of the nature of imperialism is important. Yet to me, the far more important difference is Socialist Alternative's differentiation between propaganda groups and mass parties, and thus their attitude towards organising in Australia today.

The number one sign of a group that has grown too inward-looking is elevation of doctrine and theoretical correctness ahead of the kind of invaluable experience earned in struggle, which is the only way that an activist can truly put their theory & assessments to the test. Despite making obligatory statements against it, this assessment of "The nature & tasks of a small socialist group in Australia today", recently reposted by John Passant, displays exactly that dogmatic approach. This idea of marxism as a static and rigid formula that one can simply read and then apply to everything goes hand in hand with a perspective that one's own group is the only one with the correct theoretical line, and all others are practicing some perversion of marxism. To me, this attitude is ultimately counter-productive to real marxist thought.

If our primary goal is "arguing our ideas – selling our magazine, running information stalls, holding meetings, talking to individuals, organising study groups, selling books – not agitating for mass action or running for parliament", then having arguments over differences in marxist thought and ensuring that we all get on the same page theoretically is the only useful task during a period of little sustained struggle against capitalism. Thus, I can see why the comrade I was speaking to would place such significance on what I see to be a relatively small point of theoretical difference – important, but not hugely relevant to our understanding of the nature of modern Australian capital or the best strategy for revolutionary Australian socialists to work towards overthrowing it.

The fact that small-scale struggles often break out locally, or that there has been some exciting openings in campaigns relating to mass audiences in recent years, such the movement against coal seam gas mining or the one for equal marriage rights, thus only presents a new audience with whom to have such arguments; those who agree with you or can be won to your position, you recruit, and the rest you attempt to get behind your banner or condemn as "liberal". Bearing such a "sectarian" attitude is a complaint commonly thrown against any socialists attempting to work in such movements, including myself; most of the time it is pure red-baiting by those who either ideologically or personally see socialists within movements as a threat. Yet the organisational approach of SAlt argued in this document to me seems prone to such a counter-productive attitude, or, at the very least, unconcerned with the potential for activists to fall into such an approach.

I don't mean to undermine or belittle the hard work that a great many SAlt comrades do in supporting such campaigns, nor suggest that all of their members behave in this fashion (all socialists can become prone to falling into such traps of thought, after all); but to me the organisational approach of limiting a revolutionary organisation's work to propagandising and recruiting new members, and abstaining from seeking to win leadership of what struggles are being fought in the here and now, not only risks condemnation for "sectarianism", but will ultimately stifle the development of leaders and sabotage any potential to impact the political climate and move forward to a future in which we can realistically talk about an Australian revolution.

For example, the following list of tasks:

"We need to be able to confidently answer [the mileu's] concrete questions about the issues of the day and to refute the arguments of the right wing and the reformists. We participate in these movements to argue how they can win – for the need for mass action rather than relying on the ALP - and to explain how the drive to imperialist war and the attacks on workers’ living standards are all the product of a capitalist system in which a wealthy minority lives off the labour of the mass of workers. In other words, we intervene to argue ideas – to make concrete propaganda - to try to win people radicalised by these protests to a socialist standpoint. We also see intervening in these movements as vital training. It is a way to test our analysis and arguments about capitalism today. It is a way to hone the arguments of our existing members so that they can intervene more effectively and cohere a layer of people around us. It is a way to integrate new members recruited from these movements, as they have to go out and try to convince other people of our arguments about the road forward. It is a means to educate ourselves so that we can actually play a central leading role in the future, when we have accumulated more forces."

The list of tasks makes no mention of the real work of leadership, beyond providing ideological and practical direction; learning how to comprimise, build consensus behind your proposals (and find the ways to democratically move forward when consensus cannot be found), and inclusively build a campaign, network or movement. This is a vitally important question for training cadre; is is only through testing out ideas in struggle, whether practical ones about the most effective means to organise or theoretical ones about the correctness or strength of certain arguments, that we can actually see which ones work most effectively. It's not just about about seeing which ideas win arguments, but which ones win campaigns and struggles. Thus, the revolutionaries of Tunisia & Egypt did not come away from their respective episodes of workplace-based struggle in 2008 thinking that workers would not play the leading role in a struggle against the regime; instead, they sought out new ways to reach a mass audience and for the working class to provide leadership to the millions suffering from the capitalist order.

The fair and honest assessment of the weakness of the left in Australia & other similar areas of the western world today that this article gives is used to justify, most significantly, a sectarian approach to leadership of mass struggles. This is summed up in the sentence "Socialists have to learn to lead, i.e. how to convince others of ideas they initially don’t totally agree with." Even on the basic level of education & leadership within the party, such an approach, resting upon a notion of a leader as the one who is correct and should be obeyed, is a product of capitalist ideology and against any real spirit of revolution. To take such an attitude into working with others in campaigns, who may or may not be revolutionary socialists, will inevitably lead to alienation; perhaps a few who agree with you will be joined to the group, as the above quote assumes, but with such an attitude it's hard to see how healthy and productive working relationships within campaigns will be developed, and thus how those campaigns could ever win their demands.

This, ultimately, is the most important things that revolutionary socialists can bring to a struggle; an understanding of the reasons why sexism, homophobia, abuse of workers, etc exist today, and thus the clearest understanding of how we can fight back against the constant assault of capital, and perchance then to win these struggles. And ultimately, putting big wins on the board for little campaigns like these has a flow-on effect for the working class and the rest of the 99% as a whole, which becomes to realise that changing the way things work is possible and, when the next crisis of capitalism comes along, is far more ready to rise up against it. Thus the success of the mass movement against Mubarak has spurred on a whole variety of activists in Egypt, from the Coptic minority to feminist bloggers to workers. If building the party comes at the expense of building mass sentiment like that, then we're no closer to winning anything real at all.

After that, it was somewhat refreshing to read Dan DiMaggio's article Road Maps, Dead Ends, and the Search for Fresh Ground: How Can We Build the Socialist Movement in the 21st Century? on LINKS. For me, it does a far better job of outlining the real limitations and tasks for revolutionary socialist organisations in the West in this period than the artificially limited definition of a "propaganda group". For example:

"Even if it is the case that “micro-sects” are all that can be built now, then let them be less pretentious, less sectarian, more open to working with one another, and more aware of their own inherent weaknesses (not to demoralize them but rather to help better understand the role they might play). Let them critically evaluate all their methods, search out more effective forms, and really ask if they are preparing the way toward something better in the future."

Certainly to trick ourselves into thinking we are on the verge of winning revolutionary change here in Australia if only the organised left could get its act together is going to lead us to inevitable demoralisation. But to likewise condemn ourselves to banging our head against a wall because of the limitations of the objective conditions of society will do the same. Of course, there are many admirable people amongst the organised left who are willing to sacrifice their time, energy and health because they are ideologically and morally convinced to do so; but I don't like to count myself amongst their ranks. Thus, when a party has a line that greater unity & political collaboration is the goal, yet at every conference the same organisational and political tactics are proposed in order to reach that goal even though there have been limited successes (and I'm talking here about my own party, at least on certain aspects such as membership) – it's time for some changes. Experiences like the 2011 NSW state elections, in which the upper house ticket included a broad variety of leftists (some who quit the ALP in protest to join it), though, are important steps forward; but in the absence of a mass revolutionary party or layer, I don't think there is the capacity for them to form without a "micro-sect" party to initiate them.

DiMaggio's list of things to attempt on page 47-48 is an interesting example of creative ideas for organisation, and I think many of them are initiatives that could be pursued, either through direct communication between left organisations or through left unity forums such as Broad Left in Wollongong or Left Unity in Adelaide. But the question of "A common website, newspaper, and/or journal, with the aim of posting important news, reports on struggles, socialist and radical analysis, and serving as a forum for debate and organizing ideas" is one where there are limitations to what can be done in the absence of an organisation. Any paper hoping to pay the bills for production simply on donations or even sales will inevitably struggle; even corporate newpapers are experiening difficulty in this way. However, I think a project like Green Left Weekly, which is supported by a group (the Socialist Alliance distributes papers throughout the country, both through subscriptions as well as selling in the traditional "annoying" sense at rallies and events) but constantly aims towards left regroupment, encouraging contribution from a broad range of activists, can provide this need for a revolutionary media project; this is the kind of direction I'd like to see Green Left move in order to become a real rival to resources like Counterpunch and Znet, the two mentioned by DiMaggio, as well as Australian left media outlets like New Matilda.


  1. Hi Patrick,

    There's a telling analysis of the Socialist Alternative method by an ex-member written in 2003 on our website at if you haven't seen it, makes some similar points about the diet of abstract theory and abstention from opportunities for intervention in the real world.

    In my opinion, theoretical differences on the far left are not unimportant, where they reflect different orientations to how to operate in the real world, as most of them at base do. But an approach of trying to build genuine unity in struggle on the left is also an important starting point. I have to say in that respect the Socialist Alliance's "left unity" stance was shown to be more form than substance by the way that the DSP handled the task of forging unity with the other organised groups in the Socialist Alliance. As a result there are no other organised groups in it anymore, apart from the DSP which has now dissolved into it. Coming to grips with this debacle and why it happened would seem to be an important one for those who claim to be serious about building unity on the left.

    The "experiment" has hardly been a successful one in left unity. Real unity has to be forged through common activity on the ground, a task that still faces the left in Australia.

  2. The weakness of Dimaggio's prescription on the role of a publication is/was that it was not conceived as a means to an end, i.e. as a way to knit together people with a common framework (socialism/Marxism) in common activity that could create the basis for a party, a network, or some other type of organization down the road. This is/was a reflection of Draper's thoughts on these issues. Draper proposed that socialists create publications that would serve as "political centers" that would contend for influence among a national array of loose circles.

    The main thing is to build bridges and become all-inclusive in practice. A revolutionary party can only emerge in the context of a broader revolutionary movement. Such a movement cannot be created or even facilitated by groups that have a "line" on foreign governments, foreign revolutions, and any number of issues. We have to unpack the "Leninist" baggage.