The following editor’s notes were used to introduce AMR issue 51, which was published in March 2010. The author, the late Eddie Clynes, drew out a theme from a number of the contributions to the International Meeting of Communist and Workers’ Parties, which had taken place in New Delhi, India, the previous November. The theme, that of social democracy, is a very contentious one and of great importance to Australian Communists given how dominant the Australian Labor Party has been in the labour movement of the country since the ALP’s foundation in 1891.
A number of important changes impacting the ALP have taken place since the notes were written. Debates about internal democracy and the relationship with the trade union movement are prominent in the news at the moment. Whenever the topic of the class nature and role of the ALP is raised in forums of the Communist Party, a lively discussion ensues. Is the ALP a social democratic party any more? Is it simply a second major party of big capital? Is there a successor to the ALP as the reforming, social democratic party? Is that the Greens or some other party?
The editorial board of the AMR has included these notes from Comrade Eddie alongside some of his other writings to pay tribute to his contribution as editor but also to stimulate more discussion about social democracy and its manifestations in Australia, in particular. We would welcome contributions on this theme and look forward to carrying them in the pages of future issues of the Australian Marxist Review.
Many of the speakers at the 11th International Meeting of the Communist and Workers’ Parties, contributing to the theme The International Capitalist Crisis, The Workers’ and Peoples’ Struggle, The Alternatives and the Role of the Communist and Working Class Movement, naturally discussed social democracy and its attitude to the capitalist crisis.
There is much mythology surrounding the role of social democracy. Here in Australia it’s not uncommon to hear people reminiscing about the days when the Australian Labor Party (ALP) was “for the workers”.
In 1913, Lenin wrote In Australia, analysing Australian politics. He thought it peculiar that “workers’ representatives” were plentiful in Parliament yet “the capitalist system is in no danger.” A strange and incorrect use of party names prevailed, with the “Australian Labour Party ... a liberal-bourgeois party, while the so-called Liberals in Australia are really Conservatives.”
Lenin was perfectly clear that the ALP was not a socialist party. “The leaders of the Australian Labour Party are trade union officials, everywhere the most moderate and “capital-serving” element, and in Australia, altogether peaceable, purely liberal.” The ALP was (and still is) overwhelmingly concerned with Australia’s development as a capitalist country and doing all that is necessary to ensure this proceeds smoothly.
In 1952, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Australia, Lance Sharkey, wrote The Labour Party Crisis, setting forth the party’s analysis of the ALP. Sharkey states that the ALP’s goal then was “an independent capitalist Australia”, a “pro-Australian” policy which “won widespread mass support” as opposed to the “Tory parties which were more closely connected with the economic and financial institutions and interests” of British imperialism.
Sharkey says: “This primary role of the ALP was supported by some concessions to the working class and reforms of some benefit to the masses generally.”
Sharkey also recognised the changed situation after WW2 in which “the ALP leadership has forsaken the cause of an independent Australia and today assists the monopolists in converting Australia into a dependency of US imperialism.” This, he says, “proves how important it is to raise the banner of our national independence and wage the struggle against Wall Street penetration and domination of our country by aggressive US imperialism.”
Since then there has not been any qualitative change in the ALP’s role, despite present-day ALP leaders seeming to be more assertive, more independent, more self-activating. They nonetheless remain thoroughly pro-capitalist and pro-imperialist in all major policy areas. Indeed the ALP leadership shifted decisively to the right in the early 1980s with the embrace of economic rationalist policies. These days, any policy difference between the ALP and the conservative Coalition is more often than not, just a matter of nuance.
Social-democratic parties have traditionally worked to win the allegiance of the working class. Concessions have been granted (and also taken back), but that should not lead us to think social-democratic parties are workers’ parties. They sometimes sound like workers’ parties but that is a key element of their modus operandi.
Social-democratic parties have always competed with the traditional conservative parties to be seen as better managers of the economy (capitalism), but they also have a special role in the labour movement i.e. to ensure that the working class supports the main direction of capitalist development.
Such a conception of social democracy serves to clarify the often one-sided assessments of social-democratic parties as either “workers’ parties” or “bosses’ parties”. The mixed class composition of the membership of social democratic parties also fuels the misconception that their real nature is open to contest, dependent on whether the working class or the bourgeois “pole” becomes dominant in practice.
No social-democratic party has ever seriously prosecuted the struggle for socialism. In that sense social-democratic parties are parties of and for capitalism. They are not workers’ parties, as ultimately they ensure that capital prospers. The current economic crisis well illustrates this.
Despite this, reliance on social democracy to be the main vehicle for progressive, even socialist change, is still common on the left worldwide, including in the communist movement. Strengthening social democracy’s political support base only multiplies the ties that bind the working people to the fortunes of capitalism.
Our task is to wrest the political leadership away from social democracy, by putting class struggle back on the agenda. Building class-consciousness and developing socialist consciousness underpin the struggle to change the direction of politics in this country and are fundamental in the fight to win a socialist Australia.