I don’t think we can start a discussion of approaches to building socialism in Australia without first outlining the objective situation that exists. As with most advanced capitalist countries in the western world Australia is completely dominated by pro capitalist forces and thus their ideology.
They tell us that we are in an unprecedented economic boom, that unemployment is at an all time low, and that strike levels have never been lower. They would have us believe that the class struggle is a thing of the past and that there is no alternative to the status quo.
But the propaganda of the ruling class does not tell the full story. These points may be true on the one hand, but on the other hand we have a situation where most people think privatisation, free trade and Howard’s industrial laws are all bad.
The current economic upswing is based on extremely poor foundations, and unlike the post war boom for example, has not even given the working class any crumbs of the table. It is based on low pay, debt and long hours. Casualisation and underemployment are rampant leading to massive amounts of stress in people lives.
A recent poll in the Bulletin Magazine indicated that 36.5% of respondents felt worse off than when Howard was elected in 1996, with 18.8% feeling the same as they did then. This means that 55% feel no better off despite the boom.
In reality society stands far to the left of all of the main bourgeois parties and the leaders of the trade unions. There is a massive gap between the mood that exists and the representation that working people have. We believe that the biggest crisis facing working people is the crisis of working class representation.
There are many examples that show that under the surface workers are willing to fight. What is lacking at this point in time is a lead and a party that can organise the fight. This does not mean that there is not a market for socialist ideas or opportunities to build. I think that it just means that until the class struggle picks up we will not be able to mass recruit.
Given this backdrop we believe that socialists in this period have a dual task. The first task we have is to introduce a new generation to the ideas of socialism. This is obviously done by organising public meetings, conferences, street stalls and general propaganda work. All of this we know. This is extremely important work but it is a means to an end and not the end in itself.
The second and more important task as we see it is to campaign on the ground and provide a lead in struggles when and where we can. This is obviously closely linked to the propaganda work but more important in the sense that sometimes people can learn more in struggle than by reading a hundred books. It is the case where some people are searching for ideas but others are purely looking for a lead. By campaigning on the ground socialists are able to build genuine organic links with the class.
It was this method that has helped socialists build links with the class internationally. If we look around the world really of any left group who has had success on the electoral arena it has been based on this method.
In Scotland for example, leaving aside recent setbacks for a moment, the basis for the building of the SSP was the campaigning work done the SML, and in particular the campaign to defeat the Poll Tax. It is not just good enough to say the party was built around the personality of Tommy Sheridan. Tommy and others built up a reputation as class fighters and they built up a certain amount of trust with ordinary people. This is what led to him and other socialist fighters being elected as MSPs.
In Ireland to for example the fact that the Socialist Party is perhaps the only openly revolutionary group in the world who could come close winning 2 MPs in the national parliament is not coincidental. That was based on years of patient work in particular the campaigns to defeat water charges and more recently the bin tax. For the CWI we believe that in places where we have elected representatives it has been because of our work in leading local campaigns.
In Australia this was also the case. It was this method of involving the party in local campaigns that led to SP being the only socialist organisation having a councilor elected in 50 years.
SP has not just been involved in organising rally after rally but organising workers and the community on the ground. Winning the council seat in the City of Yarra was not just a fluke. It came from almost 15 years of patient work in the area. Our party and our leading members are known around the area for leading many campaigns.
In Yarra we led a campaign against the closure of the Richmond secondary college in the early nineties. Our comrades along with the local school community occupied the school for 1 year; we took the government to court and sued the police. After being evicted we set up picket lines. No other left group bothered to get involved in any serious way until the end and they could see this was a big news story.
In 1999 we led a campaign in Collingwood for the often unpopular issue of heroin reform. We believe we were the first group in the world to take up this issue. We campaigned for a harm minimization policy and safe injecting rooms. This was not a very sexy issue but was a major concern in the local community as over 300 people died of overdoses that year.
Back in 2003 we also launched the UNITE campaign, as it was then, on the trendy strip of Brunswick St. We worked to both highlight the issues of casualisation and low pay and organize hospitality and retail workers into unions.
We have also obviously intervened in all of the industrial disputes in this area of Yarra.
Most if not all of the other left groups in Australia would describe this work as ‘neighborhood watch’ campaigns. Unless it is the sexy issue of the day for example Iraq or the environment they would not dirty their hands with such work.
Whilst as a party we want to recruit and sell our paper. We think that sometimes you have to sacrifice these things in order to build the movement. For any healthy revolutionary party there is a direct link between the party and the workers movement. One can not grow without the other. So involving yourself in the struggle must take priority.
For us it is not an option to just go from rally to meeting to stall to picket line selling papers and trying to recruit. Whilst it is true that the method of SP has meant that we are by no means the biggest left group in Australia by quantity but we think that the quality of the work we are doing is miles ahead of anyone else.
Now I don’t want to give the impression that SP / CWI is obsessed with campaigning for the sake of electoralism but I do think it is a useful gauge as to the amount of support you enjoy in the class and to how successful you have been in explaining the ideas of socialism.
The CWI has no illusions that we are going to bring about socialism by electoral means but we use these positions as a platform to raise alternative views. I think that all of our public reps do this in an effective way. We now have 36 councilors elected in 7 countries and in no area do we have a majority. Instead we use these positions of authority to mobilise people into action. We have done this in Australia around inappropriate developments and to pressure the council to rejig the budget for working people.
For example last year we mobilised hundreds of parents and children to lobby a council meeting which forced the council to go with a SP proposal to give an extra $200 000 to childcare in the area.
Amongst public housing tenants in the area we have done the same. We have put a lot of work into organizing the public housing tenants especially at the Fitzroy housing estate. This is an estate with over 3000 residents and 90% of those people on one or another form of state benefits. Crime rates there are some of the highest in the country.
But with our influence especially through our councilor we have been able to work closely with residents association and bring together all of the different communities which range from Vietnamese, Chinese, Sudanese, Serbian and Anglo Australian in action against the State government.
This has led to more resources for the residents association by way of money etc, more community workers on the estate and more sporting facilities for the kids. This is important because a lot of the crime stems from the fact that kids from rival communities were fighting over the one basketball court on the estate.
On the question of left unity this is something that we are keen to discuss out within the movement. Some groups claim that this is the most important issue facing the working class. We would say that it is the lefts orientation and lack of roots in the class that is the main problem and not the size of the left but the quality of the work.
There are two problems we can see with left regroupment in Australia. One is the distrust that exists amongst the various left groups and the other is the absence of any real organic connection to the class.
The question is how to rectify this. First just bringing together the existing left groups alone and then artificially declaring yourself a new party is a recipe for disaster. The left needs to engage in serious and genuine campaigning work both together and within the community and union movement to build up trust with one another and break down the barriers that exist.
The most important issue is how to deepen the lefts roots in the class. This can not be done by just proclaiming yourself the new left alternative to Labor and just sitting around waiting for elections to come around. A genuine new left party needs to be linking up with left unions and progressive community groups and campaigning together in a serious way to show workers what the possibilities of the left are.
At this stage there are no left unions and very few community groups that are in any way serious about creating a new party. Without these layers a new party is in reality a ghetto of the left. We said at the time of the launch of the Socialist Alliance that the forces required to establish a new left party do not currently exist and any attempt to create a party without them would lead to petty infighting amongst the left and a quick disintegration.
In Australia we currently have a situation where we have very low levels of class struggle and massive illusions in the Labor Party. Not only by most sections of the union movement but also by ordinary workers. As I said earlier this does not negate the fact that under the surface big contradictions and tensions exist.
It is the view of SP that the foundations are being laid for an increase in the class struggle, not just in Australia but internationally. It is usually the case that the consciousness of workers increases in periods of change as opposed to in the middle of booms or slumps. We believe that as the economy begins to slow some of these cracks and contradictions will begin to be exposed.
In the meantime we have to work at breaking down the mistrust that exists between the left by engaging in serious campaigning work. We also need to build those organic links between the left and the class that are crucial if we are to have any effect in changing the course of history and putting society on the track towards socialism.