Party Work in the Mass Movement
Socialist Party of Australia Central Committee members John Bailey, Steve Gibson, Marie Lean and Tony Oldfield met to discuss aspects of Party work in the mass movement. They began by looking at what is meant by the phrase “the mass movement”.
TO We can describe the mass movement as a general body of people who are active and involved around particular issues. They have a mutual concern, they are united around a particular concern, whether it be the nuclear disarmament movement, the environment or the labour movement.
SG I see that as a part of the mass movement, what the various parts of the mass movement are. The mass movement itself is best described, I think, as the total of all those movements, individuals, groups – people who are dissatisfied with the status quo, in one way or another and to one degree or another. I don’t think that necessarily means they have to have masses of people working in them, but that the people involved are drawn from the mass of the people.
ML I think the mass movement is in a state of change at the moment. In the past, we were used to the trade unions being the core of the mass movement but today they aren’t always.
TO I think it’s true that there’s change in the nature of the mass movement and that’s also because of the change in the political situation.
In the past it was generally true that the mass movement was led by the left and predominantly the left leadership came from the Communist Party of Australia. So we had a united leadership in the mass movement which was able to influence large numbers of people who weren’t members of a political party or were members of other political parties, like the left of the ALP and sometimes even right-wing social democrats within the labour movement because they saw that particular activity as in their interests at that particular time.
If we look at the campaign for shorter hours, for example, there were a lot of different ways of seeing the campaign for the eight hour day and people from many different political perspectives wanted to achieve the eight hour day.
JB One of the features of the mass movement is that it’s not limited by any ideology or any organisation. It has the power to attract people from different organisations and different political persuasions.
I remember, for example, the Vietnam War days when the movement against the war involved people who would normally not have been involved in any political or working class movement, particularly the mothers of people who were being drafted into the army. Such a mass movement has the potential to involve all sorts of people who normally wouldn’t be involved in political activity.
SG I think we sometimes make this question more complex than it needs to be. Maybe we should call the mass movement the people’s movement because whether the Party is there or not, there would be a mass movement or a people’s movement around particular issues. The Party seeks to make its mark on the mass movement in all its sectors and to try and harness the mass movement in a socially worthwhile direction.
TO In an article in The Guardian, Chomsky quoted the ex-deputy director of the CIA. They were looking at the role of the Communist Party of Indonesia and he was saying how they, the capitalist class, didn’t have the ability to mobilise and play a role within the mass movement.
We have got to look at the question “why?” and if we do, we come up with the answer that the concerns of the progressive and left organisations, particularly the communist parties, their interests are married most of the time to the interests of the mass movement.
It is not that the Communist Party dominated the mass movement but that the issues were of mutual concern to large masses of the people and to the Communist Party.
If we look at the Socialist Party today and our role in the mass movement, we’ve got to say that the Party wants to help develop a movement around protecting the environment, it wants to help develop develop the peace movement, throwing the US bases out of Australia, to have a strong and powerful trade union movement that can defend workers interests.
But all these are also in the people’s interests. We have the same interests and that’s why we should have a major role within the mass movement.
We can also see issues in a broader context than the one issue the mass movement might be concentrating on. We have a world view and because of that world view, we are able to give a political perspective, a long-term perspective and to give leadership in those movements.
ML It is inevitable that we’re involved in the mass movement because we’re not just a party of theory, we’re also a party of action for change. One of the Party’s aims is to clarify the issues in the mass movement, putting forward theories relating to the basic needs of the people.
One of the problems today is, because of the weakness of the left movement and because there are too few people, the Greens or a section of the women’s movement or another group starts of an excellent campaign but they have a non-class approach. It’s difficult, it’s more problematic to bring the the class issues into it later.
We’ve got big responsibility as the mass movement really grows into something that’s going to mean something to see that people’s expectations are not raised beyond what is possible at the moment but to see that people clearly understand the political issues, what the political process is and what has to be gone through, how far they are likely to get and how long the process may take.
JB You can’t not be involved in the mass movement because it’s an expression of concerns people have. If we’re not part of that movement or we don’t have an input into that movement, we look as if we’re not interested in what’s concerning the people.
But there’s another danger that you can lose your identity in the mass movement. The Communist Party of Australia (CPA) is an example. By gradually losing their identity, they just became part of the mass movement to the point where they liquidated themselves.
So I think it’s important that while we take up concerns the mass movement has and we show that we’re with people in those concerns, we also retain our own identity as a class-based Marxist-Leninist party.
TO I think it’s a mistake to try and relate the CPA’s liquidation to its role in the mass movement. I think it’s more a position that the CPA itself lost its way, it lost its world view, you might say, and that’s why it became submerged in the mass movement. It wasn’t the mass movement that made it liquidate itself.
SG Part of the ongoing debate within our own Party is that in working in the mass movement, there are many dead ends and blind alleys. From the one extreme of the liquidationist sort of approach there are also others who work in the mass movement who take a kind of adventurist, leftist approach. They don’t look over their shoulders to see whether they’re actually participating, leading or whether they’re galloping off ahead of the rest of the mass movement.
If we’re talking about our Party’s work in the mass movement, the actual type of work has got to be different depending on which particular aspect of the movement you are involved in.
For example, there’s a method of work which applies to our work in the trade unions. There’s another method of work which applies to our work in the anti-privatisation coalitions that have been set up here and there, like the public hospital coalitions, or in the movement for land rights or women’s rights or whatever the particular issue is.
I think this is where our knowledge and experience comes in so that we know that we’re not only doing Party work in the mass movement but we’re doing it correctly.
Of course, there are also some basic principles which apply in all the areas of work. There’s the question of strategy and tactics. Communists working in the mass movement, regardless of which area they’re working in, need to be guided by our political understanding and by the fact that the objective as well as the subjective factors are necessary to achieve a revolutionary change of society. So whatever we do, we’ve got to work from that basic premise.
What I’m saying is that a particular tactical position adopted in a trade union wouldn’t be appropriate to the sort of work that we’d do in a looser coalition. There are structured organisations in the mass movement, there are very laissez faire arrangements as well, but the basis of our approach has got to be the application of Marxist-Leninist theories in whatever we do.
TO Hopefully our approach is that we earn a position of influence within the mass movement by our own work, by earning respect and credibility from the other people who work there, by showing that we’re good workers on the ground, that we’re honestly interested in that particular issue, that we’re not doing it for other reasons.
If we win the leadership, it’s because we’ve played a good role in that movement, not because we’ve dominated that movement with numbers of people and pushed out others who don’t have the same view as us.
Our way of working should be to try and develop all the political tendencies within a group working around what is the main issue and at the same time arguing for our political viewpoint—but never at the expense of the group.
JB There’s always a danger of committing one of the two deadly sins. You can adopt a sectarian approach, that you’re only in there to push your own barrow and to get what you can get out of the mass movement. The other one is to enter a mass movement and just drift along with it without contributing or adding anything to it.
ML We need to have people with skills. We don’t seek to win by numbers or to dominate an organisation and we don’t go in there to capture people. The way to show you’re not doing that is to have just one or two people in an organisation who by the sheer force of their ideas and the work they do are able to give leadership to it and win the respect of the people in the organisation.
I think there’s a difference between the way we work and the way some other left organisations work. Some do not promote themselves as an organisation but just to work in grass roots organisations. But how do you build the socialist left movement if you don’t also show that there’s an organisation people can join?
SG One of the other difficult tasks is determining what our long-term objective is. Each of the various components of the mass movement has some specific objective, some short-term aim whereas our attitude has got to be driven by a recognition that there is a longer term aim as well, there’s a goal to be won.
For example, the anti-Grand Prix movement in Melbourne, the campaign to save Albert Park. It’s going well, attracting large numbers of people. It cuts across the sort of political boundaries that were mentioned earlier and has a unifying effect on people who would never ever see themselves as being involved in any kind of mass movement in the past.
Successful or not, the Save Albert Park lobby will eventually go out of existence. We need to encourage people who are participating in those sorts of protest movements to recognise the class nature of their problems.
The enemy is not not the workers doing the compacting or digging up the trees or even the coppers who come along and remove the protesters.
The focus has got to be on the hungry, greedy, avaricious promoters of such events who use all sorts of propaganda to try and justify them and say how good they are for the State and so on, whereas in actual fact it’s just purely and simply a money making venture.
Some of those messages can get lost in the rhetoric and emotion so we need to try and convince people that there’s more to look at than just the immediate objective and also encourage them to become involved in other mass campaigns too.
ML I think we need to show that it’s not just the greed of the promoters but also the governments that promote something like the Grand Prix as a “solution”. We need to be able to show people that a lot of these schemes put forward to solve all our problems financially are not in the long-term a solution for the people.
JB There was a development project in north Queensland. There was opposition to it and a mass movement formed very quickly.
A tourist venture was planned and it was said it would solve the unemployment problems in that area. Our Party Branch produced and distributed a leaflet showing that it actually wouldn’t, that they shouldn’t support it on those grounds because it wouldn’t do what they claimed it would do, it wasn’t going to increase employment. We pointed out that it would increase Council rates and that there would be more government intervention for infrastructure, depriving other areas of funds.
The intervention of our Party Branch brought that home to people so we were able to strengthen the movement at the same time as showing that the Socialist Party is working with them. I think this is one example of how we should work in the mass movement.
SG We’re sometimes asked if working in the mass movement is a revolutionary activity. In order to influence people into revolutionary thinking and revolutionary activity, it’s necessary to participate in all aspects of life and society. However, we need to be conscious that working in the mass movement will not bring about revolution, it’s a part of the revolutionary struggle.
ML Yes, I’d agree with that but I think there will always be a number of issues on the agenda and some will have greater working class content than others. You’ve always got to consider the situation you’re in, the starting point, because sometimes we’re starting from a long way back, to look at the level and the experience of the people there at the time.
TO I think that in the mass movement basically we’re struggling for reforms, but that doesn’t mean that our perspective is limited. As communists we’re working in the mass movement to try and introduce more developed ideas and to win people to our position.
Of course, that’s not the only reason we’re there – we also have a mutual interest in defending the conditions of ordinary people, of working class people. But it’s in that process of struggle that we’re able to introduce ideas and to win people to a more developed position. Rather than just seeing the end as winning a reform through that movement, they understand that to really win the interests of their class or their particular group within the community they need to change the system.
I think our perspective of the political alternative comes in here too. We’re trying to win people from a whole range of areas to see that their aspirations can’t be met at the present time by the two-party system and that one of the main aims at this time should be to form an alliance able to overthrow the two-party system – not necessarily at this stage to overthrow capitalism but to be able to put a political alternative in place which represents the interests of the large mass movement.
ML We don’t want to be a party that stands off and pronounces what should happen. I think there’s been a tendency on the part of some left people to just tell people, this is what should happen, and to hope that they’ll win people to them but I don’t think we can do it that way.
JB Another reason we should be involved in the mass movement is to counter anti-communist propaganda, to show that communists are people who are concerned, as they are, about these issues and will fight with them. I think it’s important that they get to know what communism is through the work of communists. It can help counter bourgeois propaganda, anti-communist propaganda.
TO Quite often my experience in the union movement has been that the way you overcome some of that propaganda and build a close relationship with people is not through the big issues but quite often it’s through the very small, everyday issues that people remember.
It might be someone comes to you for advice because they need time off work to go and visit relations overseas. Because the particular enterprise where you’re working doesn’t want less hands on the productive forces at that time, there’s a bit of a battle to win a small reform for an individual person. Sometimes that can have a lasting effect, winning loyalty and respect from people you help with those very small issues.
It can also mean you open up ears. People from that time onwards are prepared to listen to what you’re saying whereas before their ears were closed. They just had a label on you – he’s a red and he just wants to take us out on strike. But from that time on, they see you as a human person and they’re prepared to consider some of the things you say.
SG I think that’s right. In order to win the confidence of people we’re working with and to enable us to assume some position of leadership is a brick by brick process. It doesn’t just happen because you say it’s going to happen, it’s a result of attention to detail, recognition of people’s particular needs, worries and concerns.
And the other thing, of course, is that none of us go into the various areas of the mass movement as experienced comrades. We gain our experience as we go along. Since some of us have been active in various areas for longer than others, we can assist comrades who are coming newly into an area, we can pass on the knowledge and experience.
For us as revolutionaries, it’s necessary to find out just what people are thinking, what drives people to do what they do, how we can best tap into their concerns and assist them in resolving their own particular issues. All this is a part of our overall struggle towards the first stage of the transformation of society.
I want to refer to building the influence of comrades in the mass movement and assuming leadership roles. I don’t think that necessarily means you’ve got to be the secretary or the president or a member of the committee. If you’re able to expound a view which strikes chords with others in the organisation, that’s a leadership role just the same as if you hold a leadership position.
But having won the positions of leadership, where do we go from there? If the objective is just winning positions of leadership, then we might as well stay home. It’s not just sufficient to win a position; having won the position, we need to know where we go from there and to carry people with us.
This also touches on the question about what we hope to achieve in concrete terms with our work in areas of the mass movement as far as the Party is concerned, the Party building role.
I don’t think everybody is clear on what we mean by Party building as the result of our work in the mass movement. It doesn’t mean going in and saying “Well, look, we’re from the Socialist Party. We support your aims and objectives. Here’s a membership application for the Socialist Party of Australia”.
TO You can’t go into a mass movement and pursue your own individual interests. I think this is a big problem that faces us quite often, especially in the trade union movement where the rewards, financial rewards, can actually be quite good for people in a leadership position.
We have to maintain our integrity and we have to continually be supported by the collective of the Party because it’s very easy for people to break with the Party and go it alone within the mass movement. Of course, this is where we have a big problem with people becoming submerged in the mass movement.
The responsibility lies with the Party to make sure it maintains a connection with each individual member. We must support every comrade’s work in a concrete way so they can’t afford to break with the Party.
A good example comes to mind. We’ve got a young comrade who is active in his workplace and in the trade union. He’s been able to do that from a position where he was working in a non-union workplace but, because of the support that’s been given to that comrade by the Party branch, by the collective, he has begun to see the Party as fundamental to the work in the workplace.
JB We should work as SPA members, not individuals, in the mass movement. It’s important that people aren’t left to drift into these movements. They represent the Party, the Party should be there with them in some way or another, and give them support.
SG There’s the very important function of the allocation of resources. It would be nice if we were able to do all the things that we think need to be done and allocate comrades and finance and equipment and so on to carry out those objectives.
The reality is that we’re thin on the ground and we have limited potential at our current stage of development. It’s pretty important for us to be able to estimate the areas where our work can most fruitfully be applied.
I think there’s been a tendency in the past for comrades to want to be involved in every little committee around the place but an important part of working in the mass movement is to determine what we can do, to prioritise and then to devote maximum effort towards that particular goal.
For example, I think that at the present time, our work in the anti-privatisation struggle is the one that’s going to be most likely to allow us to exploit the potential we’ve got. It’s a major political question and it has an aura of excitement about it for the comrades.
Our objectives there will be to try and draw together some others – not competitors but other community-union coalitions – so they become actively involved in the Public First campaign.
JB I think one of the other considerations is that you’ve got to look at the comrades you’ve got available and where they can fit. To a large extent, you’ve got to work where you have people. If you haven’t got people somewhere, you may not be able to work in that field.
TO Yes, but we don’t have to be constantly working in an area to be part of a movement. For example, you’re working in the trade union movement, you can raise important environmental issues that are part of the environmental movement in your trade union and get them to participate. You’re probably offering a greater service to the environmental movement doing that than by going along to your local environmental group.
The Party has the ability to tie in a lot of different areas where single issue groups don’t have the ability to tie a lot of those areas together.
SG The anti-privatisation struggle brings in all of those issues.
TO Yes, migrants, trade unions, education, save the hospitals, public transport, everything.