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Effective Strategis for Social Reform

Presented at the Labor Left Activists and Supporters Conference, July 2001, Trades Hall, Melbourne


Today's Conference has provided a great opportunity for various progressive organisations, their representatives and individuals to express their desired results from current and future Labor administrations. It is by no means conclusive or comprehensive. It is merely the beginning of one of many future public activities organised by left Labor activists.

This Conference has provided the left of the Labor Party the opportunity to take the policy initiative. Yet we run the risk of losing this initiative is we cannot formulate an effective procedure for implementation.

This brings to question four issues, undoubtedly familiar to those with a history of leftwing activism, which are normally expressed as irreconcilable dichotomies. An attempt is made here to resolve these supposed dichotomies, as effective strategies for social reform with examples from Australian political history.

The four issues are as follows:

  • Firstly, whether a reformist or revolutionary agenda should be adopted.
  • Secondly, whether political action should be orientated towards parliamentary representation or mass action.
  • Thirdly, whether the organisational model should be a united or popular front.
  • Finally, whether tactical decisions should be made on principled or pragmatic grounds.

Reform or Revolution?

The revolutionary perspective derives from Marx's claim that the State is the product of class divisions, that class divisions are irreconcilable and therefore any attempt to reform State institutions is doomed to failure. Instead, the social relationships where capital is dominant over labour must be smashed. Only then, can a proletarian state be established that will wither away as it ceases to concern itself with the political administration of people and concerns itself with the technical administration of things.

The reformist perspective derives from a continuing tradition that claims that the modern liberal democratic State, whilst imperfect, is unlimited in its capacity for reform, unlike absolutist or totalitarian states whether feudal or Marxist. Further, the liberal democratic analysis does not make class its primary starting point - it operates from a basis of universal humanity, of which economic class is one of many structural divisions.

Both these perspectives are partially true. The reformist perspective is quite correct to place universal humanity as the operating principle from which genuine democracy and human rights can be achieved. It is also quite correct to assume that the current status quo - indeed, any status quo - is imperfect and under the proper systematic conditions is capable of reform (otherwise the State could never wither away).

Yet it is the revolutionary perspective that is correct to point out that class divisions are not a structural distortion but rather a systematic rule of property relations. Whilst capital rules in the system relations over labour the State is a dictatorship of the capitalist class. In order for the reformist perspective to be true the revolutionary agenda needs to be implemented. Thus, either a revolutionary orientation in a reformist organisation or a reformist orientation in a revolutionary organisation is appropriate.

To pose the problem in this way, of course, is to answer it. The achievement of political democracy with universal adult suffrage, is an extraordinary victory to the labour and women’s movements and not one that the capitalist class gave away without a fight. It does contemporary “revolutionary” organisations absolutely no credit to sneer, downplay or ignore this. Further, although it has been a long, difficult and continuing battle the reforms which help end of political discrimination on the basis of association, of sex, of ethnicity, of sexual orientation and of the mythic category of ‘race’, have all helped to bring real content to political democracy which at its outset was the almost the sole domain of Anglo-Saxon men of property.

The fact that there is still excessive structural distortions, particularly on class and sex lines, is indicative not of the formal democratic political system but by the lack of democracy in the economic system and the lack of substantive equality for all citizens. Whilst the attempt of Don Dunstan to introduce industrial democracy in South Australia during the 1970s was thwarted by a strange alliance of employer groups, some unions and legal restrictions, that example must become an initial objective of - to coin a phrase - revolutionary reformism, along with completing the project of universal political rights. For only when all people are substantially free from political discrimination and only when political and economic democracy truly exist can we be sure of a society where our technical resources are genuinely directed to the benefit of all people.

Parliamentary Representation or Mass Action?

The question of whether political energies should be primarily orientated towards parliamentary representation or mass, that is extraparliamentary, action is a question of tactics. In conditions where there is no semblance of any democratic procedures, such as an authoritarian and totalitarian regime, mass action, with the very real and necessary prospect of revolutionary change by force is the only tactical consideration.

Cynicism of the capacity of parliamentary democracy even in a nation like our own are well founded. Apart from the structural distortions that have been previously noted, leftwing parliamentary governments, such as Allende’s Chile and the Republican government of Spain prior to WWII both fell to anti-democratic rightwing military force. With such examples, it seems appropriate to suggest that in times of crisis, rightwing political movements are perfectly happy to obliterate democratic institutions in order to ensure that their political power remains intact.

But in a State which has had a relatively stable period of representative democracy and where there is no immediate prospect of a revolutionary overturning of achieving the democratisation of the means of production, parliament must be used as a defensive tool and must be used to expose the limitations of political democracy without economic democracy. Any parliamentary activity that does not attempt to transcend the limitations of parliament runs the risk of opportunists.

To be sure, political organisations must give heed to the voice of the people as expressed through the ballot box. A political organisation that consistently fails to achieve any form of electoral success despite its participation would be idiotic not to investigate its fundamental principles and policies to work out why it simply isn’t presenting a convincing argument. If it doesn’t then, despite any claims to the contrary, it is an ultraleftist organisation that is ignoring the vast majority of people.

Even under such conditions however, parliamentary activity can never be more than either a preparation for, or a response arising from, mass political action. Mass action must have given the initiative and the priority by political activists. The political decisions to end Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war, or to cancel the proposed Franklin dam, or even to change the Federal A.L.P.’s policy towards East Timor, were not won because of the good intentions of parliamentary representatives, despite the tenacious work of parliamentarians with such intentions, but because ordinary individuals were prepared to work constantly to make these issues sufficiently important to the point where they could not be ignored by the politically powers.

It is therefore imperative for progressive activists to direct their energies primarily in the community and political organisations to bring issues to the public attention. It is the role of parliamentary progressives to resource and assist these organisations and to negotiate the best possible solution under the circumstances. To put simply the tactical answer is that mass action is the arena where political change is initiated through protest and by bringing the issues to the attention of the public sphere. Parliament is the arena whereby political powers negotiate a solution that minimises loss of mass loyalty to the system.

A United or Popular Front?

Historically they were two counterposed models of the United versus the Popular Front were proposed by Trotsky and Stalin respectively over what tactical position that the communist parties should adopt to the rise of Nazism. The Trotskyist position was that the communist parties must remain politically independent yet work in constant unison with the social democratic and liberal parties. The Stalinist position fluctuated widely. At one point it advocated an ultraleftist position, describing social democrats as being no better than the fascists; social-fascists was the term used. In the latter part of the rise of Nazism however they capitulated entirely and made the communist parties join a broad Popular Front to which communist activity was subordinate.

Whilst the historical origins refer to a specific, albeit critical, period of European history and particular political movements, it is hardly unreasonable to apply the strategic methodologies to all progressive movements. The central question is does a political body seek organisational unity with others where differences remain for a strategic advantage or does it maintain political, organisational and even tactical independence?

The nature of mass politics is that the Popular Front is the organisational structure of mainstream political parties, whether or not they are consciously aware and use the term themselves. Both the Australian Labor Party and the Liberal Party are organisations dominated by tribal alliances with a very loose attachment to their supposed fundamental political beliefs. Yet this lack of ideological purity, this acceptance of substantial internal difference, has brought these organisations the constant strategic success and stability which evades those who don’t use the model.

The ‘United Front’, has also been terribly misused, not the least of all by organisations which claim heritage of that political tradition. Independence or "correctness" of a particular historical or tactical interpretation has often become the means by which such organisations have divorced themselves from further analysing their own positions and the ideas of the majority of people. Further, it has fragmented progressive forces causing it to lose political battles that may have been won - the higher education campaigns of the late 1980s are a case in point.

As an another example however, People for Nuclear Disarmament were a highly successful United Front. Their organisational membership was incredibly diverse, some five hundred organisations organised in common action; it is little wonder that PND in the late 1970s to the mid-1980s was able to organise demonstrations across Australia of tens and even hundreds of thousands. It provided constant pressure on the political stance of the Australian Labor Party, which historically has been quite sensitive to independent peace movements (indeed, in Victoria, twenty-three branches of the ALP joined PND).

The political left must realise that because it has in the first instance, unlike the conservatives, an alternative vision of the future, those vision are going to diverse and differ among various individuals and organisations. The process of accepting such diversity, establishing permanent contact with allied organisations and attempting to overcome substantive differences - and even glossing over irrelevant differences - is a sign of political maturity. Strategic objectives however cannot be overlooked; and this is why we need United Fronts that want to become Popular Fronts.

Principles or Pragmatics?

The final supposed dichotomy is between principled versus pragmatic political behaviour. The normal manner in which the propositions are phrased is that pragmatic political decisions are made in accordance to what conventional wisdom claims is possible, whereas principled political decisions are made in accordance to what should be the case.

Pragmatic behaviour is normally associated with conservative forces. However ‘pragmatic’ merely means ‘possible’ and many political demands are indeed possible, even if they are radical. What we have learnt to believe is ‘pragmatic’ behaviour is in reality actually ‘unprincipled’ behaviour.

Unfortunately, this has mean that many political movements have now shied from the pragmatics of actually achieving their political goals. The ‘movement’ or the act of protesting itself has actually become more important that a partial or complete achievement of political goals, what Naomi Klein describes as "McProtests". Yet there is an alternative: political behaviour that operates on principles and towards a pragmatic objective.

As a contemporary example of politics based on principles and towards a pragmatic objective, compare to the recent blockades of the World Economic Forum and the Nike retail store in the Bourke St mall to the anti-apartheid retail protests of the 1980s and the MUA picket line. The two former protests were not pragmatic. There is no possibility of Nike changing its wages and outsourcing policies by blockading the end of one of its supply lines. And it would have been pure fantasy to expect that the World Economic Forum would have been successfully shut-down, regardless of whether the physical meeting space had been disrupted or not. These people are well versed in the use of modern telecommunications.

On the other hand, the anti-apartheid campaigns and the MUA protest were pragmatic. The anti-apartheid campaign sought to have South African products removed from the shelves of Coles-Myer. After several months of intense work, it succeeded. The MUA blockade sought to have union labour reinstated. It succeeded. They both succeeded because they were appropriate - that is, pragmatic - protests for the objectives concerned.

It is also worth noting that neither the WEF nor Nike blockades were acting according to principled behaviour, although the protests themselves are legitimate. Blockades are not something which one can choose to partake in according to whim, or even as according to a recent article in Green Left Weekly, according to a question of politics. This is escaping the question; it turns the question of when freedom of movement should be restricted (and that’s what a picket line is) into an unanswerable moral question. Blockades by the MUA and anti-abortionists are both given the moral equivalent- it’s just an exercise in power.

Now this certainly cannot be the case. A blockade is an exercise of a legitimate restriction on freedom. The MUA picket - indeed all union picket lines - are legitimate because they have been called by the actual workers themselves. Likewise, environmentalists who protect their property - our property, that is, State Forests, are also acting legitimately. However, blockading the right of consumers to enter a store without the support of the appropriate workers is an unprincipled and immoral act. It was precisely for that reason that the anti-apartheid retail protests against Coles-Myer never physically stopped a single consumer entering their stores.

To return to the consistent emphasis of our first speaker today, Dr. Jim Cairns, it is not enough for us to achieve political power. We must be different people when we have achieved it. Our protests and our initiatives must be based not only on the most precise and effective criteria of success, but they must also be based on the highest moral principles. We need to engage in "consciousness raising" to use the possibly unfashionable term from the 1960s. Our organisations must be more democratic, more tolerant and more sensitive than those that we are trying to replace. Even as individuals we must, quite simply, become better people - more dignified, more principled, even more charitable. A radical transformation of society will not occur solely by challenging the ownership of the means of production, we must also challenge the ownership of culture, of the human spirit.

There is no doubt that the authoritarian and exclusive interests who rule our society have enormous resources at their disposal. Through bribery, threats, lies and initiating violence itself they will engage in whatever activities they have at our disposal to ensure that their power and their wealth are not threatened. We cannot stoop to such activity under any circumstances. To be sure, such political behaviour means that our opportunity to initially seize power is substantially weaker - such is the nature of positions of power. But acting with such principles, we cease to differentiate between means and ends and in everything we do we will moving towards a society without repression.

Commenting on this Blog entry will be automatically closed on September 30, 2001.

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