Of radicals and rebels: a response to ‘Why the Greens will continue to fail’

In a piece that appeared in Overland online just after the Victorian election, Annie Toller described the emergence of the Victorian Socialists as a political force in Melbourne. The author made a compelling argument that the impressive campaigning force mobilised by the newly formed political party correlates with the decline of the Victorian Greens, who suffered significant losses at the election. ‘(It) is likely,’ Toller concluded, ‘that disillusioned Greens will begin defecting to the socialists,’ going on to note that she followed this trajectory herself. Former state government Labor minister Carlo Carli made a similar point in a radio interview after the election, noting that the Greens had formerly inspired large amounts of young people to become politically active, but that they were surprised by the Victorian Socialists this time around.

To this point, it is difficult to take issue with the article. Several of my own comrades and friends from the trade union movement and other leftist circles have made the same transition. The switch from the Greens to the Victorian Socialists represents an encouraging materialist turn – it would be very hard to call Victorian Socialists lead candidate Steve Jolly a ‘Tree Tory’, a moniker that so neatly describes Greens leader Di Natale – but there remain reasons to be critical of the new party. In part, my scepticism stems from the same source as Toller’s optimism: many people involved with the new political party are people who were convinced of the Greens a few years ago. Victorian Socialists appear to appeal to the same people for similar reasons. Toller’s claim that ‘the party stands for bottom-up democracy’ chimes a similar note to the claims made by my Green friends five and ten years ago that the Greens ‘do politics differently.’

As a socialist and a member of the ALP, I have always argued that radicals in the ALP can work to put socialists in the cabinet, rather than on the cross benches of the upper house. Now, living in Wales, I have seen what radicals within the Labour Party can achieve. The Welsh Labour Party is likely in the process of electing Mark Drakeford as our parliamentary leader, and, in turn, Welsh first minister. Drakeford, a close comrade of Jeremy Corbyn’s, has run on a platform of twenty-first century socialism, advocating radical economic and social change. This follows the radicalisation of the British Labour Party more broadly, which has granted Corbyn, John McDonnel, Dianne Abbott and others a real chance of occupying the government benches at Westminster in the coming years. These Labour governments would sweep to power on platforms of widespread nationalisations, the radical redistribution of wealth and nothing less than the promise to dismantle British capitalism itself.

Of course, nobody could argue that the Daniel Andrews Government in Victoria is a radical one (despite some conservatives trying). His government has made worthwhile investments in public transport infrastructure, regulated contract work, given significant and overdue pay rises to public sector workers, and provided staunch support for LGBTQI+ rights. Even more encouragingly, the Party ran on a platform of providing free dental care to public school students, criminalising wage theft and industrial manslaughter, and largely refused to play the law-and-order game with Liberal leader Matthew Guy on the fictitious ‘African gangs’. But the ALP has treated some of its own trade union affiliates poorly, engaged in stealth privatisation, and failed to confront the interests of capital in areas including the environment and urban development.

But whatever view we form of the Victorian Government overall, there is little argument that its best tendencies can be directly attributed, not to the politicians who sit in Spring St, but to the persistence and determination of radical trade union affiliates and progressive rank-and-file members who are working to push the party to the left. The prospects of a Corbyn-style revolution in the ALP are obviously a long way off. But this strategy retains the best chance of putting socialists in decision-making positions, rather than in glorified activist roles on the cross benches.

The Victorian Socialists run the risk of becoming a new, slightly more radical, Green party: another project for leftists more interested in signalling radicalism than the often-unpleasant and messy business of gaining and exercising power. In this sense, those making the switch from the Greens to the Socialists show themselves to be rebels, rather than radicals. Rebels secretly want to remain in opposition, as it allows them to continue to criticise those who exercise power without ever wielding it themselves. Radicals, like the socialists on the rise in the Welsh and British Labour Parties, prioritise making economic and social change, rather than posturing or engaging in left-wing one-upmanship. Tellor notes how many Green members are leaving the party in frustration as they discover that the party did not, in fact, ‘do politics differently’ after all. It is not difficult to imagine the same people making a new transition from the Victorian Socialists to another left group occupying a few cross-bench seats ten years from now.

To paraphrase the late radical Tony Benn, the Labor Party has never been a socialist party, but it has always been a party with socialists in it. The choice for socialists in Australia today appears to be between Corbyn-style organising within the labour movement or bouncing from minor party to minor party without ever coming close to the levers of power.

Daniel Nicholson

Daniel Nicholson is a PhD candidate in Political Economy at Cardiff University. He is a member of the Welsh and Australian Labo(u)r Parties.

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  1. Can you name a single prominent Labor party politician who is not a capitalist?

    UK Labour has a history of socialist MPs, our Labor hasn’t for a very, very long time.

    What’s happening in the UK would never happen here. Leftist insurgents can’t even make a dent in the Greens, Labor would be even more futile.

  2. A well-written and considered argument, Daniel. The left in Australia needs more open discussion and debate like this if we’re to get back on our feet again.

    However, my main criticisms in reply to your piece which others might share are:

    1. It doesn’t give sufficient consideration to the fact that the Vic Socialists attracted not only former Greens (and other) Party members, but indeed a substantial number of campaigners and supporters among people who have never belonged to any party, or indeed been politically engaged before now. This was evident in their campaigning efforts and turnout on polling day. That suggests the Vic Socialists and their appeal goes beyond just members of existing established parties.
    2. You should give more consideration to the VS’ policies, how that contributed to their appeal and how it compares with the established parties’.
    3. However vital the example of Corbyn’s Labour Party is, it would be a self-deception for left-wingers and principled socialists in the ALP today to tell ourselves that we have any “socialists in the cabinet” in Victoria who we can point to. (Indeed, we probably have less than a handful in the party room.) We simply do not. This is a huge part of the problem.
    4. “Rebels, rather than radicals” steers too close to being a false dichotomy. Yes, radicals and socialists must aspire to winning power for the working class and the causes they are fighting for so that they can give that power away – that is the purpose of struggle and agitation – but it is no less true that to be a radical can mean, and at times must mean, to be a rebel if we are to stay true to our cause and assure its success.

  3. Hi Daniel, thanks for taking the time to respond. I want to briefly comment on a couple of things, because your piece skips over some important aspects of my argument.

    The difference between Victorian Socialists and the Greens, as you suggest, is the difference between material and post-material politics – i.e. night and day.

    As a result the Greens probably can’t grow much further in neglected Labor electorates, but the Victorian Socialists could. So it’s not simply a matter of Greens members switching allegiance. Instead, the idea is to create the conditions for a widespread movement.

    In contrast, Labor is not capable of nurturing a faction like Britain’s Momentum. Its internal party procedures prevent the rank-and-file from making a meaningful contribution to policy, and there’s little appetite at the top to fix that.

    If leftist ALP members get anywhere in the Sisyphean task of reforming the party, then great. But good luck meeting that IPCC deadline.

    VS and the Greens/Labor are not playing the same political game. The socialists are looking for a new way. The acquisition of a few crossbench seats is not the goal; real change will come when people are engaged and organised, and an openly leftist party could be the catalyst for that. A party that has to hide its progressive arguments from the public almost certainly won’t.

  4. It’d be interesting to see from all the nay sayers on how the ALP is nothing like Corbyn’s Labour how many predicted the rise of the British left when the Blairites or Brownites were firmly in control. Or even when Milliband was leader, which of them thought that is there would be a radical Labour left within only a few years. Not many I’d say. I doubt too they could point to Corbyn (who could barely scrap together the required signatures to run for leader) as the socialist in parliament that’d lead this change.
    My point being, we may not be close but I don’t think we should stop the fight. Let’s keep working to get people like John Falzon into parliament who have a real chance to lead rather than cross benchers who, at best, can do piecemeal legislation.

  5. to Annie & Daniel thanks for your thought provoking pieces.
    I was looking forward to the emergence of the VS, hoping to find a party with views similar to my own. I have been impressed with Stephen Jolley for quite some time.
    I would like to raise a practical issue.
    Sadly, the local VS candidate in my district failed to impress.
    As head of a faculty at the local uni he has overseen in a somewhat authoritarian manner cutbacks to one course where the majority of enrollments are young women. In meetings between him and the students he came across as arrogant, condescending & chauvinistic, refusing to discuss or negotiate a compromise. The young women consider that they are not getting the tuition or materials that their hefty uni fees are meant to cover. Once the students discovered he was running as a Socialist, he was lambasted and stood no chance of getting their vote.
    Like the Greens, the VS confront the malady of finding suitable candidates who will fulfill and enhance their party’s social reputation, and failure to find such candidates all too readily undermines the efforts of those who work hard to promote their party.
    Thanks for the opportunity to comment, from a former Greens regional secretary, campaign manager & preferences negotiator.

    1. Does the head of a faculty choose which courses get cut? Was under the impression that’s all done far over their heads.

      1. thanks George.
        it wasn’t just the cuts that got up people’s sleeves, it was the arrogance, chauvinism & authoritarianism that the students wre also taken aback by.
        and to reiterate: getting candidates to stand for an election that they probably won’t win is no small feat.

  6. Not sure how ‘radical’ one would need to be in a place like Wales where Labour have had a stronghold (to put it lightly) for decades. Surely the move to the left took no more than a gentle nudge? As you rightly point out, there is no Corbyn on the horizon for the ALP.
    You seem to attribute Labor’s move to the left wholly to the trade union movement (a movement hardly full of the ‘radicals’ you suggest but more by egoists and establishment straightmen) and not to the Greens’ recent successes and Labor’s fear of losing more of their heartland, or to a wider global shift in mindset of which the ALP has tried quite desperately to ride the coattails.
    While the Greens and those on the identity politics left may play games of one upmanship, not sure this applies when it comes to parties like VS whose foundation rests on the politics of class. Surely this in itself sets them apart from the Greens. Their politics is perhaps more aligned with the movements we are seeing in the US and the UK, not sure the same could have been said for the Greens way back when.
    Certainly VS’s success in engaging new voters suggests perhaps some rebels are needed to scare these dormant ALP ‘radicals’ – if they do exist – into action.

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