Communist Party of Australia

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Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 58June 2015

More on Left Unity

Alan Miller

Editorial note:

Comrade Alan Miller passed away on November 27, 2014. His contribution to his class over almost 70 years of Communist Party membership was immense. This included his time as Deputy General Secretary, member of the Central Committee and its Executive, editor of the Guardian, Secretary of the Party in Victoria and South Australia and his many insightful articles in the Australian Marxist Review.

The following article on Left unity from issue 16 of April 1987 has been reproduced in honour of Alan. At the time the Socialist Party of Australia (now called the CPA) had been invited to join the Socialist Workers' Party (the fore-runner of the Democratic Socialist Party and, ultimately, Socialist Alliance) in forming a multi-tendency, pluralistic party. Alan makes a convincing case for maintaining a strong, united Party based on Marxism-Leninism and for unity in action with others in the interests of the working class and other exploited people.

In an article entitled “Left Unity”, published in the March 1986 (New Series No 14) issue of the Australian Marxist Review, I wrote: “It is becoming clearer to our Party that Left unity is a matter of profound political importance which requires more theoretical and practical attention”.

I therefore return to the subject and, to help present some further views, recall certain basic propositions advanced in the March 1986 article.

The article put forward the Socialist Party of Australia’s approach to Left unity in an open and candid way for consideration by activists in the labour movement. Beginning with the understanding that, in the context of working class political life, the Left refers to those forces which are committed to class struggle in the workers’ interests and have a socialist-oriented approach to social change, the Party’s position is summarised as follows:

  1. That ideological differences should not prevent Left unity;
  2. That the ideological struggle in the Left should be conducted in a principled way and should help strengthen a united Marxist-Leninist force;
  3. That Left unity should be seen as an essential element of the united front of the working class. Such a front being, in essence, an agreement between Marxist-Leninists and those holding to a different ideological position, including those not necessarily identified with the Left, designed to bring the working class into action around progressive aims;
  4. That in the whole process of the united front, of which Left unity is a part, the Party which bases itself on Marxist-Leninist ideological unity must be the driving force.

From these positions an important conclusion can be drawn, ie, that there is a significant difference between Party unity, based on Marxist-Leninist ideology, and united front unity based on agreement between political forces holding different ideological positions. Appreciation of this difference is of enormous practical advantage in tackling problems associated with Left unity and the united front.

In its activities concerning Left unity, the Socialist Party of Australia has taken part in formal discussions with other Left parties. The SPA makes no secret of the fact that, in line with its attitude to Left unity work as a whole, it approached these talks having in mind both the question of exploring areas of ideological agreement with a view of estimating the possibilities of organisational unity based on Marxism-Leninism and the question of united front agreement for common action. Not surprisingly, the extent of ideological unity with other parties varies and, as yet, there is no basis for amalgamation with any of the parties. However, the discussions have been useful in defining areas of ideological agreement and disagreement. They certainly have helped consolidate unity on important aims and tasks associated with the development of the united front of the working class. The talks, in all cases, have been conducted in forthright, comradely terms.

Along with formal party to party discussions there has been the joint activity by political forces of the Left, which resulted in a successful national Left Consultation in Melbourne in April 1986 and has brought about organised activity for the National Left Fightback Conference to be held in Melbourne during Easter this year.

Party to party talks have involved political forces associated with the Broad Left Conference held Easter 1986 and, in the activity for the National Left Fightback Conference, there has also been contact with some forces from the Broad Left.

The SPA welcomes all the positive developments which have occurred. In its own work in the Left unity area, the Party has tried to measure up to the substantial and significant task it sets itself in the Left unity process and pledges to try and be even more effective in the work.

Again the Party makes no secret of the fact that it sees Left unity in a deep and long-term sense. The Party sees the possibility and desirability of Left unity taking on a more consolidated organisational form as part of a developed and organised working class united front. Further, the Party sees the united front as part of a wider organised expression of an alliance between the working class and the middle class and various strata also hit by state monopoly capitalism and interested in far reaching social change.

However, the Party strongly contends that it is absolutely vital that in the whole process of Left unity, united front and progressive alliance, there must be a powerful and influential Marxist-Leninist party giving leadership to the working class in the struggle for anti-imperialist democracy and for socialism. Such a party is necessary to bring scientific socialist consciousness into the whole process and, as part of this consciousness, the ensure working class leadership, ie, an understanding by the working class of its own leading role and acceptance of that role by the allies of the working class.

These far reaching concepts and views are part of the SPA program for a New Democratic Economic System, opening the way for socialism.

The Socialist Party is well aware that Left unity is not only a sound and necessary concept, but an extremely urgent matter. This view concerning urgency is now widely shared in the Left in the face of the activities of the Australian ruling class in supporting the US-led nuclear war drive, attacking the living standards and democratic rights of the working people, and in view of the way in which the Labor Party under Prime Minister Hawke’s leadership is opening the way for a dangerous shift to the extreme right in Australian politics.

Having said all this, what are some of the particular matters which have cropped up and with which the Socialist Party must grapple in the area of Left unity?

The first matter concerns how our Party should deal with the strong view held by a significant number of comrades from other organisations that the key to the Left’s advance lies in the formation of a new party. From what these comrades say, our Party can only conclude that, although the new party will be to the left of the ALP, it will be a multi-trend, loosely organised party with a general commitment to an idealistic form of socialism so often favoured by the petty bourgeoisie. Certainly it will not be based on Marxism-Leninism, the organisational principles of democratic centralism and the scientific socialist concepts which are essential to a truly revolutionary party of the working class.

Our Party’s position, as outlined at the beginning of this article, shows that we have differences with the new party advocates. The Socialist Party maintains that the key to the Left’s advance lies in the building of Left unity between political organisations and, as part of that, the strengthening of a united Marxist-Leninist force. The SPA considers that the formation of a Left multitrend party is not the way to tackle either the question of Left unity or the question of Marxist-Leninist unity.

In line with our Party’s approach to the way in which differences should be handled, we certainly think the “new party” comrades have a responsibility to express their views openly just as the SPA has a duty to combat what it considers to be an incorrect approach. At the same time, we should seek to develop united activity around already agreed aims.

Indeed, even if a new party is formed, the basic tasks associated with the development of Left unity will remain. The SPA, irrespective of ideological differences with the new party, would seek areas of principled agreement in order to advance the cause of Left unity and all that flows from it.

In examining the views of the new party advocates, I will refer to the Socialist Workers’ Party statement Towards a new party. Although this is a statement of a particular party, it does reflect to a large extent the thinking of new party supporters from other sections of the Left.

The SPA conclusion that the new party will be a multi-trend loosely organised party is borne out by the following which appears in the SWP statement:

“A new party should aim to be as inclusive as possible ...”

“But our basic view is that it should be a new (SWP emphasis) party that attempts to reach out to the thousands of unorganised socialists, trade unionists, mass movement activists, disillusioned ALP members and former members who· genuinely want to build a democratic, non-sectarian, socialist organisation ...”.

The organisational concept put forward by the SWP naturally follows the multi-trend principle of the new party. The statement says:

“Many of the problems facing the new party will no doubt be organisational. People from different traditions may have trouble aligning their views, reaching compromises etc.

“Clearly, these circumstances mean that a fairly loose organisation will result. Yet it can’t be so loose that there is no reality to the party at all. Finding the balance that allows maximum involvement will be a test of the political skills of all who are involved”.

The SPA conclusion that the new party will be a party of petty bourgeois socialism is borne out by the SWP statement when, dealing with the name of the new party, it says:

“No doubt a new name will be the subject of much discussion, and once again flexibility will be necessary. But the concept we need to embody is the program of social justice abandoned by Labor. (My emphasis, AM) The more a name can reflect that outlook the better”.

It is true the statement refers to the new party as a “socialist party or a party with a core of socialist ideology”. But the limited and idealistic concept of socialism is revealed in the enthusiasm for what amounts to a party of social reform.

An insight into the kind of socialists the SWP would hope to attract into the new party is given by the statement which says:

“We feel, however, that we should explore the possibility of giving a new party a different sort of name. We think it may be more effective to choose a name other that the traditional Socialist, Communist, Workers or Revolutionary.

“This would give us a chance to influence and win the many unconscious socialists who agree with the main planks of a socialist platform but have become confused by the defects of socialism and the difficulties of building socialist organisations in advanced capitalist countries”.

A party of “unconscious socialists” who have become overwhelmed at the difficulties of building real socialism and of fighting for socialism in countries like Australia will hardly be the best equipped party to provide inspiration and leadership to the Left.

It is clear from the SWP statement that the SPA is entitled to draw the conclusion that the new party will in no way be Marxist-Leninist.

The SPA can only conclude further that the SWP itself has never had serious intentions of building a Marxist-Leninist party in view of the following which appears in the statement.

“In fact, now is the time for the greatest effort on all levels, so that we can fully make our contribution to the creation of a new party, one more capable of fulfilling the goals for which we founded the Socialist Workers’ Party.” (My emphasis, AM)

The statement says that with the formation of the new party, the SWP would be put into what is described as “idle mode” while members joined the new organisation, but not, it is said, to operate as a faction.

The serious defects in the SWP’s “new party” approach can be summarised as follows:

A multi-trend Left party, as outlined by the SWP, is bound to suffer from ideological disunity. This will result in the new party being unable to present a single and clear line of advance. Sooner or later the party will experience eruptions and splits. Furthermore, because of the multi-trend character of the party, the brand of socialism put forward will inevitably fall short of scientific socialism. All this will eventually confuse and disappoint those workers who will, at first, be attracted by the new party.

Although the formation of such a new party will not stop Left unity between political forces and the processes associated with this, it will unfortunately hinder such developments.

The rejection of Marxism-Leninism, whether such rejection arises consciously or unconsciously, is the most serious defect in the “new party” approach. Because it is united on the basis of a scientific ideological position, a Marxist-Leninist party is not only able to play a key role in building Left unity, but is able to deal successfully with all the fundamental questions associated with changing society from capitalism to socialism.

Apart from the fundamental weakness of a Left multi-trend party, the time and energies spent on such a party, will be at the expense of attention to building a fundamentally sound unity between Left political parties.

The “new party” approach all told has a negative effect on Left unity, the united front and the cause of Marxism-Leninism. The struggle for socialism therefore suffers.

Life may well throw up a situation when the formation of a progressive non Marxist-Leninist party could play a positive role in the overall political situation and would therefore be supported by a Marxist-Leninist party. But to put forward the concept of a Left multi-trend party which weakens the whole Left unity process and rejects a Marxist-Leninist party is an entirely different matter.

There are other questions besides the “new party” view with which our Party must grapple.

There is the question of how our Party is handling its relations with other parties within the Left unity process. Our basic approach is clear enough, but are we doing well enough in the circumstances? In the main, we are making progress and learning all the time. However, we have to deal with two dangers associated with subjectivity.

Firstly, there is the danger of exaggerating another party’s Marxist-Leninist development so that we move towards amalgamation in a premature way. Such a move would not be a fusion, but an arrangement which, for ideological reasons already dealt with would eventually fall apart. Secondly, there is the danger of wiping off another party simply because it doesn’t do as we would like it to do. That approach will soon undermine the Left unity process.

What should be the SPA attitude to those genuine socialist-minded forces in the ALP? Frankly, it would help the struggle for socialism if such comrades took a Marxist-Leninist position and joined our Party. But if they are not prepared to take such a step and wish to remain in the ALP, our Party will continue to seek to strengthen a principled and comradely relationship based on the concept of Left unity. In the case of those who decide to leave the ALP and continue their activity as individuals or as part of a new political organisation, our Party’s basic Left unity approach still applies. However, in the present circumstances, it would seem better than, where socialist-oriented members of the ALP are not prepared as yet to join the SPA, they should continue their activities in the Labor Party. Of course, in the case of expulsions there’s no question of choice.

The SPA has to tackle the problem of how to handle elections in the light of Left unity developments. The concept of a Left electoral alliance has merit in current conditions in Australia. There is need to put forward a Left alternative to both the conservative and rightwing ALP forces. There would naturally have to be agreement by the Left about candidates and platform, although Left parties would be entitled, and would be duty bound, to make their own assessment of the overall political situation, taking strict account of the electoral agreement reached.

I am sure our Party could handle the situation so that both the cause of Left unity and the independent role of the SPA are well served.

Certainly an electoral alliance would be a very complex process and all manner of questions would be involved – the position of the ALP Left forces, the consequences of the formation of a new party etc.

Finally, there is the question of the Socialist Party of Australia’s own understanding of just what is involved in the Left unity process and the overall strength of the SPA as a Marxist-Leninist party. On both counts our Party needs to improve the position considerably. Much work has to be done ideologically in order for our Party as a whole to appreciate fully the profound character of the concept of Left unity, its dialectical connections with other matters associated with working class unity and the wider people’s movement and the role of the SPA in all this. Much work has to be done to strengthen the SPA ideologically and develop its connections, particularly with the industrial working class.

A stronger Socialist Party is the key to the whole Left unity process.

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