The Socialist Party of Australia and the Political Alternative
The Socialist Party of Australia (SPA) has adopted a strategy of building left and progressive unity to contribute to the creation of an alternative political force strong enough to change the direction of politics in Australia. Here Eddie Clynes, Secretary of the Sydney District Committee of the SPA, discusses some aspects of the important task of building a political alternative in Australia.
This alternative must arise out of the demands and mass actions of the working people. The aim of this alternative political force is firstly to strengthen the struggles of the working people. In doing so it must set its sights on becoming the government – a new type of government – one with the vision, courage and popular support to challenge and eventually do away with the power of the huge corporations which at present wield economic and political power in our society.
The need for an alternative
There are good reasons for the strategy of building a left and progressive political alternative.
The people, in the first place the working class, face many problems. There's a massive take back of conditions underway, spearheaded by the wage reductions of the last decade, as the transnational corporations globally push to level their costs of production and maximise their profits.
The introduction of enterprise bargaining has seen workplace after workplace pushed into an enterprise agreement. The way has been opened for enterprise agreements to take precedence over awards, and where workers have not resisted, award conditions have been sold off.
The transnational corporations have been ably assisted in Australia by Liberal and Labor governments alike. As part of the deregulation process, privatisation is opening up the economy to even greater foreign domination and the conditions for the plunder of this country by foreign capital have been made more favourable, budget after budget.
Big business is pushing hard to get its profit-hungry hands on many areas of our life. Private hospital corporations, mainly American, want to operate more and bigger private hospitals here; that necessitates the run-down of the public health system.
A multinational giant (Waste Management Incorporated), known as Pacific Waste Management in Australia, has applied to Penrith Council to deliver landfill waste to Badgery's Creek. Pacific Waste could become the first private company to get its hands on Sydney's household garbage. This will surely undermine council recycling efforts as more waste means more profits.
French multinationals are eyeing Sydney's water treatment plants. Big shipping monopolies want to get their hands on the Australian National Line. The break up of Telecom has already started with the entry of Optus into the telecommunications field. The struggle has begun to prevent the Federal airports being sold off.
The real issue underpinning the Mabo legislation is Aboriginal land rights versus the mining and pastoral companies' "rights" to continue their exploitation.
In the education area, the widespread policy of "devolution" being introduced by many State governments is really about shedding government responsibility for public education and fostering its dependence on private corporations, further opening up this area to private profit making.
Capitalist plunder is creating problems in many areas. There's growing impoverishment across the nation. There are environmental problems and the rural crisis. There's a deliberate running down of the public health, education, housing and transport systems.
One of the worst aspects of capitalist "development" is today's massive unemployment. Officially it's around ten per cent, but it's really almost twice as much if you count the "hidden" unemployed: those who work at least one hour a week and are not counted as unemployed; those seeking work whose partners have a job; unemployed people who are are classed as students while doing some type of training.
This enormous unemployment has been brought about by restructuring; multiskilling; privatisation and consequent job shedding; the export of jobs; the unplanned introduction of technology; cuts in government spending; the wage freeze and inadequate pension, Austudy and unemployment benefits (all of which greatly reduce demand).
The Federal Government's White Paper Working Nation is not about creating jobs but about using the unemployed as an instrument of government policy, to keep inflation (read labour costs) down.
Massive training programs, combined with the availability of unemployed people on below-award wages (very heavily subsidised by taxpayers' money) open up a vast pool of cheap labour to business in Australia.
If all the long-term unemployed became completely unemployable, bosses couldn't threaten workers with jobs with the sack, or stand over them to accept reduced conditions.
Capitalism's many victims
Many sections of capitalist society are suffering under the growing power of the transnational corporations: the working class (including the unemployed), small business, small farmers, Aboriginal people, professional, self-employed, and academic strata.
It will not be the traditional political forces in Australia, the conservatives and the right-wing social democrats (who, in the main, accept this program of capitalist reconstruction) who will find answers to the people's problems.
If we are to effectively fight back against this onslaught, the unity of the left and progressive forces must be a central issue.
The Socialist Party believes it is necessary to build unity among the left and progressive forces, in order to mobilise the working class and its allies to change the direction of politics in Australia.
What is the political alternative?
The political alternative is the name for that complex of political forces who are prepared to change direction, to build struggles and fight for policies for the people, against the interests of the transnational corporations, against the pro-big business policies being foisted on us by governments of all shades.
The political alternative exists now. Overall, it doesn't have a very loud voice; it's not very united; it doesn't have mass support from the working people. Not many people accept the concept of the political alternative.
Nonetheless, it is with us in many areas where we work. Our job is to work with others to help build it; make it stronger; build co-operation between its various strands; bring in more political forces; give it a good direction; win more support for it.
We also want to have the representatives of the alternative political forces elected at all levels, those who will be an alternative voice in local government and in the parliaments.
Aim of the political alternative
We have seen in many examples from real life, that the path of building the political alternative is not one straight road with everyone marching down it together, all aiming for our concept of a New Democratic Economic System.
It is very messy, complicated, process. Advances can be made in one area, around one issue. Then circumstances change and some gains may be lost.
We have to find the ways to make the gains last; to strengthen co-operation, coalitions and alliances between the various forces. We need alliances which are fruitful, and become longer-term, because that's how the best results are achieved.
The aim of building the political alternative, of building co-operation, coalitions and alliances between the left and progressive forces is in the first place to strengthen people's struggles, (numerically, politically, ideologically).
In building this mass movement, we must win support for the idea that more fundamental, more lasting change in the people's interest can be brought about if co-operation and united struggle are taken to a higher level.
The alternative political force which is being built must take its co-operation to the stage of winning government and tackling the problems which face us from a far more politically advantageous position. On achieving this we will have reached a significant point in the first stage of what we see as a two-stage transition to socialism.
At present we are at a stage of winning support for the idea of working together – a long way from fleshing out the details of an alternative government.
I am not laying down a formula to build the mass movement first, before we think about parliamentary representation. That is just as incorrect and unreal as concentrating only on parliamentary representation.
In real life the process is complex. We might co-operate with others in elections, without having worked with them on any campaign around specific issues. That's fine and it happens; for example our work with the Greens in Sydney in the Federal election and two Council by-elections.
But we shouldn't leave it at that. We should seek to extend electoral co-operation into the area of mass movement issues. The Greens are willing to be part of the Blue Paper Project, for example, so our co-operation with them has at least two dimensions. We should be on the lookout to add a third, a fourth and a fifth dimension. Of course this takes time and effort.
Which is primary, the mass movement or the parliamentary struggle?
It would be a mistake to interpret the political alternative as just an electoral alliance. Our efforts to build a political alternative have so far been mainly expressed at election times, working with others, especially in the last Federal election. This has led some to think of the political alternative solely in terms of electoral alliances.
The Socialist Party Program says we regard "parliament and parliamentary campaigns as having an important place in the whole process of struggle to advance the interests of the people – provided that parliamentary activity is combined with vigorous struggle by the people outside parliament."1
In fact, without a mass movement, what can be achieved in parliament by left and progressive members would be very limited. It's a bit like a union fighting a battle in the Industrial Relations Commission, without mobilising its members outside.
So it's important for us to develop left and progressive unity work with others at all times. It will most probably be on the basis of our work around day-to-day issues that the idea arises, and is accepted, of standing candidates representing coalitions in elections.
A glimpse of a political alternative
There was a massive community outcry over the regressive nature of the 1993 budget. The budget redistributed income from lower to higher earners. The corporate tax rate was cut. A fuel excise tax was imposed. There were wholesale tax increases. Optical tests were to be taken off Medicare. Tax concessions for unused leave were removed. Students were hit harder.
As the Government reduced its revenue base and looked for ways to reduce the deficit, a fight developed over who was to pay.
Both the West Australian Greens and the Democrats in the Senate fought against the regressive 1993 budget.
The WA Greens put forward some proposals for the Government to shift the burden of the deficit reduction off the shoulders of ordinary people. They proposed increasing company tax to 36 per cent, a "top-up" tax of 5 per cent on incomes above $100,000, a freeze on defence spending, the tax rebate for low income earners lifted to $200 per annum, and other measures.
Senator Margetts from the WA Greens issued a press statement, saying "the Government did not take any of our proposals seriously" even though the Government's own costing of the Green's measures indicated they were able to provide equity and the proposed deficit reduction.
The Federal Government said, in so many words, that its political position which commits it to its economic strategy, was not up for discussion! Its stubbornness reflected its outrage and disbelief that anyone to its left can seriously challenge it, never mind force it slightly off track.
Despite this, parliamentary pressure and community outrage together forced the Government to make some changes.
The battle over the 1993 budget gave a glimpse of an alternative political force at work which was not subservient to the two-party system. It was a welcome development.
The WA Greens and the Democrats took a stand on behalf of working class Australians, against economic rationalist policies, against favours for big business, against privatisation and increases in indirect taxes.
How should we approach electoral co-operation with others? Should we always push for one candidate to represent all partners?
At this stage the answer has to be no. Our movement has a long way to go in developing co-operation to the extent of parties being willing to confidently join a common platform which represents all political forces.
It might be possible in some cases. So might the adoption and joint propagation of common policies, but mostly an exchange of preferences will be the common form of co-operation among left and progressive candidates.
This will be true especially in the early stages when the organisations participating in a coalition do not know each other well and confidence has not yet been well developed.
"In some cases, a number of candidates exchanging preferences may be the best way to gain maximum votes and ensure the election of an alternative candidate. In other circumstances, especially when the co-operation between the coalition partners is long standing, highly developed and well accepted by the electorate, an agreed common team of candidates may be the most effective way to contest the elections."2
Building a political alternative is the Socialist Party's overriding strategy at this stage. Working with others and building coalitions and alliances should become our main way of working.
Examples of coalition building
Blue Paper Project
The Blue Paper Project arose out of a Sydney SPA meeting on Australia's defence policy. A draft "Blue Paper" was produced as an alternative to the Federal Government's Defence White Paper to be issued later in 1994.
The idea was accepted and a working committee was formed and the idea of an alternative "Blue Paper" gained widespread support among left and progressive organisations.
The Blue Paper Project has broadened the usual definition of security (as military security) and introduced economic and socio-political security.
The working committee comprises party members and peace activists who hadn't previously worked together. The project has built some co-operation among organisations who have not campaigned jointly before. It is a development. The weakness, however, is the lack of trade union involvement.
Organisations and individuals are being encouraged to send in submissions and letters to the Federal Government on its coming Defence White Paper. This cuts across the Government's unwillingness to receive any real community input.
Rank and File Alliance
The Rank and File Alliance (RFA) is a Sydney-based group of militant union activists who originally came together to build a lobby of the 1993 ACTU Congress. The group organised a successful public meeting during the ACTU Congress, at which union speakers, including Len Cooper the Secretary of the Victorian Communication Workers' Union, rejected the collaborationist "Accord" approach and outlined a class struggle perspective for the union movement.
As well as union activists there are members of the left political parties, including the SPA, in the Rank and File Alliance. Retired unionists have also given it some support. The sharpening attacks on trade union rights and the real need to build militant leaderships in the majority of unions, coupled with growing unemployment, underpins the formation of the Rank and File Alliance.
There is still a tendency for some left activists to see the RFA as a group for left activists only, but most participants reject a sectarian approach. For example, early in the life of the RFA it was suggested the group adopt a socialist aim. This proposal was overwhelmingly defeated, not because there was no support for socialism, but because this aim is too advanced at this stage to rally militant unionists around.
The group is active, assisting the development of the left and progressive elements in some areas of the trade union movement. In the first place, the aim is to build and strengthen rank and file committees.
In a number of recent Federal and local council elections, the party in Sydney made the decision to co-operate with others, assisting their campaigns, as part of our strategy of building a left and progressive political alternative.
This has been primarily with the Greens and Democrats. We helped plan some aspects of the campaigns and assisted practically, both before and on the election days.
Some have not agreed with this course of action, but we cannot deny the benefit of its consequences for the party in Sydney of having branches and many comrades involved in discussions with other groups. For the first time it's not just the party leadership talking and planning with other organisations. This has been a significant development.
The strategy of building a political alternative does not exclude the Socialist Party from standing its own candidates, either as SPA candidates or as part of a team, but we are obliged to choose candidates who have some standing, some credibility in the area they stand.
If our candidate is unknown, and no work has been done in an area, this amounts to no more than flag waving. We've seen the result of this approach to elections many times before.
Round table process
In Sydney's Eastern Suburbs Socialist Party comrades are involved in a "round table process" which was initiated after the Federal election of 1993. The process brings together representatives from the SPA, from the Greens, Democrats, the left of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), the local peace group and local hospital group with the aim of working together around agreed issues. Some valuable work has been done in defence of local public hospitals and all participants are willing to continue and expand the joint work.
The above are just some examples of the development of coalition work, which is vital for building a united, alternative political force in this country. The challenge is to find more opportunities for joint activity with others, especially to build on co-operation developed during election times.
How we work
There is some hesitation and fear among some party comrades that if we work with others, we'll lose our independence as a party, that is, we won't be able to express our party policy and we'll be limited in what we can do.
Well, yes, there are limits, but there are also benefits, as already shown, if we learn to work in alliances.
If we say we want to co-operate to build a new alliance for change, we have to show we are genuine and prepared to do some work, some selfless work. We are not in it to see what we can get out of it for ourselves. This is the approach of some other groups.
We have succeeded in a number of areas in showing we have a disinterested but committed approach and our standing with the organisations we work with has greatly increased.
It's a left and progressive political alternative
We use the term "left" in a precise way, to describe those who see the domination of our society by large corporations as being responsible for the economic, political and social crisis society faces.
The political left accept the class struggle and takes the side of the working class in fighting for a socialist solution to society's problems.
The left political parties clearly fall into this category, despite the differing views of how socialism should be won and what it will be like.
There are left-wing trade unionists, peace activists, environmentalists and many others, but it would be wrong for us to describe as "left" all activists who fight oppression and injustice.
There are many "pro-people" organisations and individuals who support political reforms and progress and work for social justice, equality, democracy and a better society, yet don't see the prime importance of the class struggle, nor understand the role the giant corporations play in society. Such organisations and individuals can be described as "progressive".
Just as it is wrong to describe all activists as just "progressives", it is equally wrong to describe them all as "left".
We also have to take account of historical changes. For example, it can be argued that trade union leaders who call themselves "left" (usually because of the traditional role their union has played) but these days do all they can to dampen down the class struggle, can no longer be described as "left".
We have to work with many progressive forces who don't necessarily have a working-class outlook.
Particularly when we do some concrete work with those who don't have their origins in the working class (for example, Greens and Democrats), our co-operation is sometimes seen as "selling out", "working with the enemy", "wasting our time", or other expressions of mistrust. Others on the left, especially other left parties, still hold these views strongly.
Some cannot accept the "progressive" part of left and progressive unity and just interpret our concept to mean "left" unity, that is, unity with other left groups in the struggle for socialism.
If we work successfully with other left parties, we should be convincing them to help build a left and progressive political alternative and not to remain satisfied with just left unity.
The many progressive individuals and groups are part of the political scene and won't go away. It is true some have taken anti-working class positions on some issues, but nonetheless, if the left doesn't work with them and help them develop a class outlook, who will?
Our job is to make an alliance of left and progressive forces work. We have no other choice.
The working class
We seek to involve the organised working class in struggle for its demands. We also seek to promote the struggles of progressive and community organisations.
Sometimes I think comrades see this as a dilemma – which choice will we make?
The two process are not contradictory; they should be complementary. In Victoria the mass movement against Kennett has seen a trade union/community alliance in action, with the working class as its core (and initiator). We're in favour of this.
If we ask which social forces should the left and progressive political forces seek to mobilise, the answer must first and foremost be the working class, because of its central social position, its strength, organisational capacity and experience in struggle.
The working class has a leading role to play in building an alternative political force.
Given the prime aim of involving the working class, we need to connect the working class with other sections of society which are its potential allies.
Working class struggles (especially organised trade union ones) should always reach out to the community for support. There's always good reason for such support and many practical ways it can be expressed.
Progressive community struggles should always seek the involvement and strength of the working class (and trade union movement). For example, hospital closures affect the hospital workers, the surrounding factories and schools, and the workers in each place should be involved in the community struggle. Organised trade union involvement is harder to achieve in some places but is still a very desirable component of every struggle.
Our role is to help make both processes happen.
Misconceptions about the political alternative
Some think that building a political alternative amounts to building a pressure group to hold the balance of power in parliament to pressure the ALP to adopt better policies.
If that's the extent of our vision, then we've accepted the domination of the ALP and the Liberals over the political system for all time.
Of course, one of the stages in the struggle of the mass movement and its parliamentary representatives will be to hold the balance of power (in a much stronger way than is the case now in the Senate and with a more far-sighted vision).
A political alternative, inside and outside parliament, will pressure the government of the day to adopt better policies – but with the aim of showing the people there's another way, building up more support for the political alternative as part of the struggle of the alternative political forces to form a government in their own right.
The complex of forces that is made up of the left and progressive movements and the parliamentary representatives needs to be convinced that the political alternative should engage in a struggle for power and part of that struggle is the struggle for government.
A common question asked is whether or not we're trying to build a new organisation or a new political party. Of course, we don't seek to do either, but to have organisations form coalitions.
This is not a new idea; coalitions have been in existence throughout political history. The aim now is to bring together the many strands of the left and progressive movement, which has become so fragmented and also grown much, in the last 30 years since major differences in the Communist Party Australia (CPA) appeared.
The strategy of building a political alternative is part of our development as a party. The SPA began its life in the 1970s with many holding the idea that the party alone could unify and lead the movement; that the party alone was the alternative political force.
In the 1980s we paid much attention to building left unity. This has since developed into the need for left and progressive unity and with the aim of building a political alternative comprising all such forces.
In our work there have been some expressions of the idea that because we are making a major commitment to popularising the idea of a left and progressive alternative, then we're in a special position, "more equal than others".
This idea is wrong and should be overcome. We must work as equals in any alliance, with no special rights or role for the SPA.
Any respect we gain in building an alternative political force will be won through our hard work, our clear perspectives, and our dedication to making it happen.
The "Principles of unity" in our Program remind us that "every organisation and the individuals involved must approach others on the basis of equality, mutual respect and honesty" and that "there must be consultation at each step of the unity process to ensure agreement on policies, tactics and actions."3
Other ideas of the way forward
Of course the Socialist Party isn't the only political organisation with a perspective on the way forward.
The leaderships of the ALP and the Liberal-National Coalition both oppose the development of any left and progressive alternative, inside or outside parliament.
The ALP at Federal Government level has taken more steps than any previous government to preserve the two-party system in the electoral sphere. It has introduced legislation tightening up the requirements for registration of political parties who wish to participate in elections.
For some time the ALP has threatened to change the method of election of the Senate, no doubt to keep out alternative forces who thwart its political agenda.
There is a variety of ideas among other left political parties.
Some start from the argument that most working people still give their allegiance to the ALP and so the main task is to change this by causing people to break with ALP. This is done by exposing the ALP. Building an alternative to the ALP is not seen in terms of building alliances around a program but as concentrating on building those forces, in the one party, who will help break the allegiance of large numbers of workers to the ALP.
Such an approach is negative, not positive. We have to start by putting forward our ideas of an alternative and working to build it. In the course of our work, we'll have to expose the ALP, but to see this as the starting point is wrong.
There are left groups who won't work with non-working class forces. Alliances are not possible with those who only agree partially with them. Because "revolution" is the answer, only those who want revolution can co-operate now. This leads to a contradictory position at elections. Because there is no credible alternative which has the allegiance of the working class, as the ALP does, then until one arises we must prevent the Liberals getting in by urging people to vote for the best of the baddies – that is, the ALP.
Other left groups do support the concept of alliances, but say that workers, farmers, and other middle strata must be won now for socialist revolution. No intermediate program is put forward and any participation in elections is seen as becoming embroiled in bourgeois "parliamentarism".
In building a political alternative alliances have to be built with many different groups. As I've said, it's a messy process. Our priority should be to work with those organisations and individuals who, together with others, we can work with over a period of time.
We are the only party or organisation actively pushing idea of left and progressive unity in building a political alternative.
Many other parties and organisations make similar critiques of the problems we face: on the economy, job creation, peace, environment and so on, and this is a sound basis on which to introduce the idea of a political alternative.
We have made some efforts to talk to others about our strategy, but we still meet resistance to the idea of building a left and progressive unity.
Why is this?
Attitude to the ALP
It is obvious that one's attitude to the Australian Labor Party has a great bearing on how the political alternative is seen.
It is instructive to recall the common attitude to the ALP in the early days of the CPA.
In 1925, J S Garden, one of the CPA leaders of the time, wrote in The Communist: "They imagine the Labor Party is a decadent force. Nothing of the kind; it is the force of tomorrow, the force of the revolution. Its base is the foundation of the new society – the working class."4
The ALP was seen as mass organisation to be affiliated to and to work within. Affiliation of the communist party to the dominant social democratic party was a major campaign in Australia and in Great Britain in the early 1920s.
The social democratic parties were not seen as political parties which the communists had to compete with or co-operate with as equals. The communists were overwhelmed by the support the social democrats had amongst the working class.
Many today still give the ALP an undeserved pre-eminent position. It's a statement of subservience to social democracy.
Many still hope for a truly left-wing, reformed ALP to arise and carry out the job of leading the working class movement in the socialist direction. Numerous left and progressive activists hold this view in one form or another.
The fact that the ALP can still win government, despite the growth of alternative political forces and despite massive loss of support, seems to overwhelm some people and they see the task of beating the ALP as too big.
This can be seen time and again during elections, with left-wing organisations and individuals doing all they can to have the ALP re-elected, for fear of the Liberals winning government.
We too want to keep the Liberals out, but that's not the first or the only principle which guides us.
Our first principle is to do all we can to build the alternative political forces, to build the mass movements and to have people elected who will consistently oppose privatisation, work for an expanded public sector, fight for a reduction in military spending, for a change in our foreign policy and so on. If we do nothing to build alternative political forces, we'll be forever locked into the two-party system.
Unless we imagine that the ALP will change the direction of politics in Australia, we must accept the concept of the political alternative, otherwise we leave the working class disarmed in the struggle for fundamental social change.
Another barrier to building the political alternative is a sectarian approach to the ALP. We can recall the days when social democrats were labelled "social fascists".
This attitude too is still present today. In practice it means we shouldn't work with ALP forces, that the left can do without social democrats as allies.
The two approaches are two forms of opportunism: right and left.
Our party's position is to co-operate with progressive sections of the ALP. There is political logic underpinning this approach.
"A tug of war is likely to take place within the ALP over the creation of a political alternative. Some will undoubtedly strongly resist the building of any alternative political force but others will be drawn to it and argue for the ALP to become part of it.
"It is logical that ALP activists who are committed to serving the working people will be attracted to a political alternative which gets to work putting into practice the policies they support but which are not being implemented by Labor governments."5
We have to learn to co-operate with all political forces for the sake of advancing the people's struggles. There are ALP forces involved in some of the work we do. But not nearly enough are active in struggles. This reflects our own weakness and the weakness of the political alternative.
We still need to find the ways to influence the thinking of others more, in the direction of aiming for a new type of government and with less reliance on the ALP.
To truly adopt a revolutionary position, I am convinced we should heed what was said in our 5th Congress document where it stressed the need to "wrest the political leadership away from reformism."6
What can we do to build a left and progressive political alternative?
We are the only political force with a comprehensive approach to the political alternative. We have accepted a responsibility to make it happen.
We've got to keep working to have as many members as possible of every party organisation engaged in some form of co-operation and concrete campaign(s) with some other organisation(s).
The political alternative is not going to be one grand coalition that we join and then march down a straight road. There will be many (there are already some) coalitions in the union area, in the peace field, among community organisations etc. We have to get more involved with the many struggles going on now.
Our job is to popularise the idea of a political alternative, and on this basis, to change the way groups work.
We need to persist with talking to others about co-operation and as much as possible follow it up with work around specific proposals.
The necessity to strengthen the party
There will be no strong left and progressive political alternative without a strong party.
A political alternative will not be built if we try to play down the party, or hide its face. Successful work requires our influence to be much greater so our ideas get accepted by wider numbers of people.
That doesn't mean we are blindly for "the party" above all else, including above left and progressive unity work.
We need a strong party presence in the mass movement because we believe an advanced perspective of left and progressive unity combined with good policies will be a strong unifying force, enabling a change of direction of politics in Australia.
- Program of the Socialist Party of Australia, October 1992. p 23
- Answering Questions on a Political Alternative for Australia, December 1993. p 17-18
- Program of the Socialist Party of Australia, October 1992. p 46
- The Communist, July 1925. p 7
- Answering Questions on a Political Alternative for Australia, December 1993. p 145
- Documents of the 5th Congress Socialist Party of Australia, October 1984. p 28