Sunday, July 19, 2015

Final Arguments for the Socialist Objective

A final passionate argument for the ALP's 'Socialist Objective' ahead  of Conference

Tristan Ewins

As ALP National Conference approaches for the end of this month, Right-wing and ‘Centrist’ forces are busy proclaiming the obituary for socialism. The argument is forwarded (after Lenin ironically) that ‘in the ALP we were never socialists’; ‘that socialism is an outdated and disproven philosophy’ and that socialism ‘has an unbearable connotation’ thanks  to a number of totalitarian regimes from the 20th Century.  This will probably be my last personal effort to influence debate via this blog ahead of Conference.

To begin – despite ‘obituaries’ democratic socialism still has plenty of resonance in the Nordics and much of Western and Central Europe – successful economies and societies where there are strong left/democratic socialist movements. The socialist Left is also very strong in parts of Central and South America. So the movement as such is not ‘dead’ yet.

The reason socialism does not have the same ‘resonance’ in this country for now, however, is partly our own fault. (ie: the Labor Left) We are the main democratic socialist presence in this country. But because we don’t think it’s the work of a faction to engage in counter-culture – we abrogate our responsibility to pursue a cultural struggle to keep our traditions alive. So we leave it to the Trotskyist groups – and some tendencies in the Greens. And the Trotskyists at least promote it in a very narrow sense – sometimes as if nothing had changed since 1917.

This is a debate we have to have within the ALP Left. And arguably it needs to be supported by publications such as this; but also through forums and conferences, and perhaps even informal schools. In short learn the lessons re: the early success of radical social democratic parties.

That said there are many reasons why socialist consciousness has declined. Indeed, in a recent debate with a NSW Left member the argument was put that socialism is ‘outdated’ because “the vicissitudes of industrialisation no longer tell”.

Well, yes and no.

The industrial working class has shrunk and the broader working class has changed its composition. However many modern clerical jobs are just as mundane, repetitive and alienating as the old industrial working class jobs. Some such vocations even draw people together in factory-like environments. (though some workforces are also ‘atomised’ where workers labour from home without contact with other workers)  

Class consciousness is also in decline partly because of a ‘mistaken identity’ when it comes to the working class. Many white collar workers still tend to see themselves as ‘middle class’. This contributes to the demobilisation of the labour movement and chips away at class-based solidarity. Also the anti-union Ideology is reinforced regularly in the monopoly mass media. And the view that unions are to be treated primarily as political power bases – even if this means acting against the interests of the membership – can only weaken organised labour in this country over the long-run. By comparison Swedish trade unions still enjoy union density rates of over 70 per cent. (compared with 18 per cent in Australia) Sweden shows drastic decline is not unavoidable.

The broader labour movement has been stigmatised in popular culture and as a consequence of our own emphasis on the ‘virtues’ of industrial peace from the 1980s. (Industrial peace is fine where there is industrial justice; But if struggle is stigmatised that is more likely to mean defeat)

Finally socialism was stigmatised as a consequence of the Cold War – a cultural war waged over several decades – culminating in Thatcher and Reagan and the embrace of privatisation, ‘small government’, assaults on organised labour, support for dictatorial and murderous regimes, ‘class war’ against the poor and on welfare.

SO all that considered: why might socialism resonate today if only we found the courage to argue for it?

To start people still remember the chaos of the Global Financial Crisis. They remember that governments had to ‘bail out’ the big banks and finance houses. And then for the public sector to withdraw as if nothing had happened… Except for many countries (eg: Britain) the cost was in the tens of billions. (and much more in the United States)  And there is no guarantee the same thing won’t happen again.

So capitalism remains unstable. It is also wasteful and unfair. There are duplications in cost structures, and markets go places they never really should have. (including energy and water, where ideas of ‘competition’ and product differentiation are ludicrous)  Forms of market failure persist everywhere. There are Public Private Partnerships which are basically licenses for private corporations to fleece the general public. The rights of labour are under attack – not only wages and conditions – but industrial rights and liberties. The vested interests in the energy sector obstruct attempts to introduce reform for the sake of the environment. Inequality is getting worse and worse – with more and more wealth concentrated in the hands of the top 1% and the top 10% ; with relatively negligible wealth for everyone else – and an entrenched underclass which owns practically nothing.

Also, the fact capitalism is reaching its limits in terms of the expansion of the world market means desperate measures such as increasing the retirement age and increasing working hours. Yet there’s also a parallel tendency towards underwork. Amidst this, in fact ‘socialist’ policies such as promoting natural public monopolies are one option to promote efficiencies that flow on to the private sector and increase capitalism’s survivability – while at the same time beginning a shift (perhaps) to something better.

Welfare rights are also under attack; The vulnerable are stigmatised on the effective understanding that money saved as a consequence can go towards corporate welfare (primarily tax cuts, so corporations do not contribute fairly to the infrastructure and services they benefit from – which means the rest of us pick up the tab). And also to reduce the bargaining power of workers - because vulnerable job-seekers ‘are not allowed to say no’. And we have punitive labour conscription policies that look like the sort of thing that would come out of Nazi Germany.

Amidst this democratic socialism starts to look pretty good. Again: look to the parties of the Left and Centre Left in the Nordics for instance. Look to Norway’s socialisation of its oil profits. Look at Denmark’s labour market policies. Look at past successes in Sweden – full employment – much of it high wage – AND low inflation. And look at Sweden’s ‘near run thing’ on wage earner funds – Perhaps with a bit more tactical compromise earlier on it would have been a significant leap forward to Swedish Social Democracy.  (See: Andrew Scott’s ‘Northern Lights’A review can be found here:  )

But we should be clearer what we really mean when we speak of socialism. This is necessary to establish how and why democratic socialism is a better alternative to ‘laissez faire’.

For me it is simply this.

a) It is the movement which sought to extend all manner of rights on the basis of the goal of ‘equal association’ as the fair and just response to ‘the social question’. At its highest  level of development this means ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’ – partly achieved via the social wage and welfare.

b) It is the movement which campaigned for free, universal and equal suffrage – and largely won. This was against the stands taken by Conservatives – but often even by self-avowed Liberals. (eg: in Germany; Though Swedish liberals were notable in that they did support the suffrage)

c) It is the movement that fought for social rights of citizenship – welfare, industrial rights, a mixed economy and social wage – and consolidated many gains for several decades in the post-war world.

d) It is the movement which seeks to reconsolidate those gains – but also extend them to include “economic citizenship” – That is a diverse ‘democratic mixed economy’ – not just based on ‘central planning’ – but on a mix of markets and planning; as well as natural public monopolies, government business enterprises, cooperative enterprise of many types, collective capital formation, co-determination and so on. And with no delusions as to the reality of global capitalism we’re living in – and the constraints that puts upon us for the time being. Until we are much stronger internationally.

e) It is a movement which has a critique of laissez faire/neo-liberal capitalism based on the associated waste, unfairness and instability.

f)  Finally, it is the movement which seeks to empower all human beings to reach their full potential. Through cultural participation and education. Through active citizenship in a robust democracy. By breaking down inflexibilities in capitalism – and modernity more generally -  when it comes to alienation and the division of labour.  Because that is the stuff which impoverishes peoples’ lives – condemning them to nothing but ‘a hard slog’ just to survive.

We cannot allow ourselves to be frightened into avoiding a genuine debate because the IPA or CIS might take us out of context. If ideologically “we are constantly on the run” because of fear of misrepresentation by right-wing forces and by the monopoly mass media – then ultimately we will abandon social democracy and liberalism as well. Because there are anti-democratic forces in this country who will not let up until our regime of social, civil, political and industrial rights have been driven back as far as possible. Until the ABC, for instance, is turned into the mouthpiece for a virtual one-party state. Because today’s big ‘C’ Conservatives are not really convinced democrats, liberals or pluralists. They have precisely the ‘whatever it takes’ approach which we have to deny if we are to hold on to our ‘ideological and ethical souls’….

The point is that you don’t abandon a core foundation for your values, identity and analysis because of the fear you will be misrepresented in the media and by right-wing organisations. Sure you might make tactical compromises – but you don’t abandon your very foundations.


Apparently there are some in the NSW Left who are also arguing for us to drop reference to democratic socialism in the Platform.  But there are plenty of others – including down here in Victoria – who feel differently.  Importantly, though: Personally I have made conciliatory suggestions – that is, that we should recognise the plural nature of the modern party. But that democratic socialism must be recognised as a core and enduring tradition. (alongside others such as the traditional ‘Keynesian-inspired social democracy with a mixed economy’, and also our indigenous labourism)  What is wrong with that? ON top of that we could embrace the goal of achieving a ‘democratic mixed economy’ which could be the basis of a compromise in both the Objective AND the Economic Platform. ( For example See: ; ALSO see: )

To conclude, democratic socialism itself has always been a plural tradition – but generally associated with political, social and economic equality, and the extension of democracy. Liberalism remains a vital ideology – especially as promoted by radicals such as Rawls. So does democracy itself. So why would democratic socialism be different? Or is it just a tactical question of divorcing ourselves from associations with Stalinism or even Leninism? Or for the sake of appearing to be a ‘moderate’ ‘Centrist’ Party?

Sure you could say Social Democracy is also about political, social and economic citizenship… Democratic socialism and social democracy mean different things to different people. But when I speak of social democracy and democratic socialism I think of the tradition beginning with the world’s great Social Democratic parties – for whom democratic socialism and social democracy were ‘the same movement’. I also think of the theoretical and practical-political innovations of the Swedes especially. If we’re to be an inclusive Party we need to recognise those traditions as part of our heritage and as part of our modern practice.

For the LEFT especially there shouldn’t be any questioning of our supporting this. If you believe in a moderate/Centrist social liberalism – then people who feel that way might be better off in Centre Unity. (except parts of the Right have drifted SO FAR into neo-liberalism that the Left itself might be drawn right-ward to fill the vacated ideological space) That’s the path to ideological liquidation and the end of our movement.


Mind you – while the debate over the Objective has serious long term ramifications the most crucial policy debates for the immediate future will be around tax reform (increasing and reforming the mix of progressive tax), unfair superannuation concessions, social wage and welfare extension, infrastructure including roads, schools, hospitals, public space, public housing etc… Specifically we need to implement NDIS, NBN and Gonski; as well as Medicare Dental, National Aged Care Insurance, improve welfare payments by $35/week or thereabouts, and implement policies to ‘close the gap’ on life expectancy for indigenous Australians and those with a mental illness.

( I have developed a comprehensive ‘model Platform’ which I still hope will influence debate on the Platform ahead of Conference.   The document has well over 600 supporters and can be found here:   )

Without providing enough flexibility – as against an on-paper commitment to ‘small government’ – we won’t have the scope to deliver genuine economic and social reform if we retake-government. We will ‘rob Peter to pay Paul’ as usual with little overall progress. ( For example, Medicare Dental may be accompanied by another attack on welfare-  eg: Sole Parents again) That is a truly crucial question for all of us – self-identifying social democrats and democratic socialists alike….

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