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Issue #1918      June 8, 2020

Social democracy and socialism

The following is an excerpt from Can We Move the ALP to Left by Joining It? by Warren Smith.

The unfortunate reality is that the ALP is not a revolutionary party. It does not intend to remove capitalism, only administer it. The ALP and social democracy generally attempt to mollify some of the harsher edges of the administration of the state. The essence and role of the state, however, does not change. At times of arch-conservatism, a Labor government can seem a relief, but all too often it has been Labor governments that have led the agenda of implementing neo-liberal policy.

Socialism is a system by which the means of production (i.e. land and the factories – the means to produce commodities) are socially owned and under the control and direction of the working class controlled socialist state. Socialism means not just taking government but structurally reorganising the state to achieve social objectives consistent with the position of the people, to build a society where people actually do come before profits. The basis is that social production should not engender private gain but social gain. With today’s technology, the practical basis for developing socialism exists, but it won’t come without an enormous struggle because it is opposed to everything that capitalism stands for and is based upon. It would mean an end to privilege and class rule of the Murdochs, Packers and Rineharts.

The ALP constitution defines the ALP:

“The Australian Labor Party is a democratic socialist party and has the objective of the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange, to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features in these fields.”

Few progressives could argue with such principles. The fact that the ALP constitution is progressive in parts is indisputable. When these progressive principals are completely undermined and ignored by ALP politicians, who openly and brazenly do the work of big capital, the anger of people, and many ALP members is understandable and justifiable. ALP governments have not just maintained the status quo, but with clear policy initiative, have expanded the gap between rich and poor in our society. The many examples of policy backflip by the ALP reflect an astounding disconnection between policy and practice and a severe undermining of internal ALP democratic processes.

The ALP constitution calls for the:

“[...] redistribution of political and economic power so that all members of society have the opportunity to participate in the shaping and control of the institutions and relationships which determine their lives [...].”

This stated position has turned into a process of allowing the gap between rich and poor to expand due to ALP government’s policies. The Accord process of the 1980s leaves a stark reminder of the blunting of union and working-class power in the interests of corporate gain. This special period is worthy of examination in its own right and is dealt with in more detail later in the chapter “Prices and Incomes Accord.”

Further on the ALP platform mandates the “establishment and development of public enterprises.”

Yet in government, the ALP has done the opposite. We have witnessed extraordinary acts of privatisation, including QANTAS and the Commonwealth Bank. The 2015 Queensland election victory for Labor was won on an anti-privatisation platform. At the same time, the recently elected Andrew’s ALP government in Victoria is going to privatise the ports. This means handing wealth by the bucket load over to big corporations, taking wealth directly out of the public sector and services for the community. The opposition to privatisation is clearly only relevant when in opposition and when there is a well-organised campaign by the working-class, led in this instance by the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) along with the Queensland Council of Unions (QCU) and the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) in Queensland in the “Queensland Not for Sale” campaign.

Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley tried to nationalise the banks during his term in office in 1947. While Conservative and Labor governments both established public enterprises in accordance with the needs of capital at the time this was the only Labor government to ever attempt nationalisation. The capitalist ruling class and media barons denounced the Chifley government, turning the tide of electoral fortune against the ALP. Notwithstanding the ruling class reaction, which resulted in electoral defeat, it was found in the High Court that nationalisation was unconstitutional. This effectively rendered the parliamentary and reformist path to socialism null and void. The constitution, which is the basis for Australian parliaments, is a complete capitalist construct aimed at maintaining the class privilege of the owners of the means of production.

Further reflecting the requirement to appease capital within the ALP platform is “the right to own private property.”

The private property cited here does not mean the family home or car, i.e. personal property, but the fact that someone can own the natural and mineral resources of the country. When “private property” rights are dealt with in political theory, it is nearly always a reference to ownership of the means of production (factories, mines, and land etc). It is the private property rights that allow ownership of the means of production that leads to the consequential and inevitable exploitation of the working-class.

Another noble aim in the ALP platform is for the:

“democratic control and strategic social ownership of Australian natural resources for the benefit of all Australians”

Capitalism demands that our natural resources be owned privately. These resource corporations wield immense power. Natural resources are used for private profit. Public ownership of resources should be used to look after the interests of all people. Natural resources should be publicly owned but, despite some botched moves by the Whitlam government, all Labor governments have failed to deliver this position. Some things are just off-limits in the natural “order” of things.

The basic reluctance of Labor governments to remove bad laws, unfair laws, designed to maintain class hegemony, is in stark contrast to the ALP pledge to see “the abolition of poverty, and the achievement of greater equality in the distribution of income, wealth and opportunity [...].”

Working people are struggling with unjust laws used by wealthy aggressive employers who are on a constant rampage to destroy the working conditions and slash wages of Australian workers. These laws, put in place through the mechanisms of the state, are used to protect the capitalist system and corporate power and profitability.

The contradictions in the ALP platform are astounding. Ideological theory and practice do not align in the ALP, and it is easy to see why working men and women could think that an invasion of the party with the best of Australia’s working-class may assist in bringing the ALP back to its roots.

The unfortunate reality is that, despite repeated efforts, it just never works. Even the best Labor governments have looked after the interests of big capital once elected. The nature of class power in our society ensures that no Labor government will get elected and certainly won’t stay there if it betrays its responsibilities to big capital. Sound, progressive, democratically arrived at policy positions from the rank and file are ignored as the ALP politicians are practically able to do as they please once in parliament. You can join the party, but can you achieve a progressive majority in caucus to implement positive change? All evidence since the1890s indicates that it cannot be achieved.

Comrades who go into the ALP to expose class privilege and promote the class interests of the working-class should be applauded. The harsh reality, however, demonstrates that this course of action has never been able to challenge capitalism and has proved impossible in implementing any form of socialism, which was and always has been the historical goal of working-class political struggle since the early 1800s.

No one can deny a progressive ALP would have a generally better position than their conservative counterparts. Many progressive social reforms have been made by the ALP that have benefited Australian workers. The problem with social reforms is they can be undone. Like Fisher’s creation of the Commonwealth Bank was easily privatised by Fraser, Hawke, Keating, Howard, Rudd, Gillard, Rudd, and Abbott governments have all contributed to [unwinding] Whitlam’s free university education.

No one undid Peter Reith’s hated Workplace Relations Act. Sure there were some tinkers to the policy but the essence of individualism, enterprise employment, destruction of industry awards and a move to bust union power in the workplace and community was a policy position maintained by all successive governments to varying degrees.

The Australian ruling class have allowed differences around the fringes of policy to be implemented through the two-party system but that “flexibility” is highly conditional upon maintenance of capitalist relations of production, distribution, and exchange. Historically, across the world, there have been some interesting examples of social democracy taking its electoral mandate too far for the ruling class to be willing to accept. Whenever the system has been potentially threatened social-democratic governments have been removed, sometimes by military force.

Mohammad Mosaddegh is one such example in Iran. His democratically elected government set about a program of land reform, social security, and rent controls. He was a leading figure in bringing about secular democracy to Iran. When he sought to nationalise the oil industry, his government was removed by a British and United States coup in 1953.

Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán was elected by a huge majority in 1950 in Guatemala. He continued on the land reform policies of his predecessor to the great chagrin of the United Fruit Company who consistently lobbied the US government to overthrow the government. Eventually the US State Department and the CIA launched a coup on trumped up charges of links to communism and secretly importing Czech weapons into Guatemala.

Salvador Allende’s 1970 victory in Chilean elections is another classic example of a social democratic government not being allowed to implement a progressive program. Allende attempted to nationalise the banks and copper mining industry. He sought to bring education and health under government control. He brought free milk to the kids in shanty towns and continued land reform and social welfare programs. This far too progressive agenda saw the intervention of the CIA and the bloody military coup of notorious dictator General Pinochet.

The ruling class has a pattern of denying any elected social democratic government’s reforms. The struggle within the confines of the system demonstrates this time and time again. The dismissal of the Whitlam government is not dissimilar to these events. There was an absolute certainty of CIA involvement in the Whitlam dismissal. John Pilger writes:

“An American commentator wrote that no country had ‘[...] reversed its posture in international affairs so totally without going through a domestic revolution.’ Whitlam ended his nation’s colonial servility. He abolished royal patronage, moved Australia towards the Non-Aligned Movement, supported ‘zones of peace’ and opposed nuclear weapons testing. Although not regarded as on the left of the Labor Party, Whitlam was a maverick social democrat of principle, pride, and propriety. He believed that a foreign power should not control his country’s resources and dictate its economic and foreign policies. He proposed to ‘buy back the farm.’ ”

In drafting the first Aboriginal lands rights legislation, his government raised the ghost of the greatest land grab in human history – Britain’s colonisation of Australia – and the question of who owned the island continent’s vast natural wealth.”

You will note in the three examples land and nationalisation of resources are all common threads. The ruling class corporate elite will not stand idly by and have electoral processes remove what the capitalist ruling class believe is their god-given right. This may explain why the ALP has never effectively taken [action] on these questions. They are not allowed. It is not within the rules of the electoral game. That’s why significant social change will only come about by revolutionary means.

Social change is possible. Socialist revolutions have occurred in many countries, many have been reversed, and many have failed for a range of reasons. Rosa Luxemburg observed in 1900, that, “It is impossible to imagine that a transformation as formidable as the passage from capitalist society to socialist society can be realised in one happy act [...] The socialist transformation supposes a long and stubborn struggle, in the course of which, it is quite probable the proletariat will be repulsed more than once.”

The absolute necessity, however, is for social development to move towards social wealth being shared in an equitable fashion in a world without exploitation. Socialism is possible. It can be witnessed in shining beacons of hope such as Cuba and continues as a driving force of opposition to capitalism wherever it appears. There should be no illusion that the ALP can be a vehicle to socialism.

If you wish to read the rest of this pamphlet it is available for free here.

Next article – US double standards on national security

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