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Corbyn, Sanders and the Australian left

‘Where there are not thousands, but millions, that is where serious politics begin.’

These were Lenin’s words, penned in 1918 on the cusp of the great schism in the workers’ movement, between social democrats and communists. Either side could truthfully claim millions of adherents and their disputes defined the left for the next hundred years.

While the split defined the Australian left in the twentieth century, even the memory of it is now fading. Having suffered years of losses and splits, The Communist Party was the first to fall. The ALP – not really part of the social democratic tradition, but once close enough – is still dogmatically committed to the ‘Third Way’, historically defined by Tony Blair in opposition to socialism. While the threat from the party’s left is long gone, caucus solidarity is as unshakeable as a mausoleum. Consequently, the Greens have been the major force on the Australian left since at least the 2000s. Yet their tradition is defined more by the radical ecology, social movements and diffuse anti-capitalism of the late 1980s to the early 2000s.

The upshot is that for at least three decades, the last twentieth-century Australian socialists standing have found themselves a long way from the millions – and as a result, very far from serious politics.

This is not the case in the United States and the UK. Notwithstanding their political roots in the 60s and 70s, Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn articulated a distinctively undogmatic socialism suited to a post-neoliberal era. Sanders won 7.9 million Democratic primary votes, while Corbyn won 10.2 million votes in the 2019 general election. This wasn’t enough to win either but – as government after government intervenes in the economy on an enormous scale – history has lent considerable, if not overwhelming, weight to their claim to have won the argument.

The 2008 economic crisis did not strike as severely here, delaying the rebirth of post-neoliberal progressive politics. Yet, encouraged by Sanders and Corbyn and spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic and the greatest depression in a generation, the Australian left has started to take its first, faltering steps towards a Sanders-Corbyn style of socialism. There is a potential that socialists may, at last, return to serious politics.

But to go from thousands to millions, you need to gamble. So, elements of the far left, key union leaders, Watermelon Greens and even a few ALP socialists still drawn to the light on the hill have begun to place their bets. If Australia does follow America and Britain, whoever backs the right horse may find themselves in a position to define a new Australian left. And this may be more urgent than ever. We know that a new, post-COVID-19 era of sharp polarisation and persistent crisis is rapidly being formed. What remains unknown is which political forces will shape it. Without an explicitly socialist current, it may prove difficult to even defend what’s left of the social welfare state.

 

The ALP

Well may we say God save the socialist left of the ALP, for nothing will save Anthony Albanese. The Jeb Bush of Australian politics, Albanese is the unimpressive last resort of an exhausted and discredited dynasty. Years of pusillanimity have transformed him and his faction into willing executors of the program of their historic foe, the Labor right, who reward service with bemused contempt and open insubordination.

Hawke inoculated the parliamentary ALP against socialism in 1983 when he inflicted upon the socialist left one of the slowest acting mortal wounds in Australian political history: the Wages and Incomes Accord. The Accord committed the party to mandatory arbitration, shifting the locus of industrial power away from shop floor workers and their delegates and towards the union bureaucracy.

Deregistration of noncompliant unions (like the BLF) and expulsion of principled parliamentary leftists (like George Georges) were the stick. Recently, we caught a glimpse of the carrot. After weeks of uncritical support for Scott Morrison’s COVID-19 response, Albanese dared venture a criticism of the decision to allow individuals to access up to $10,000 of their superannuation: ‘It’s not good for individuals, it’s also not good, it can be said, for the superannuation industry in the role that it plays.’

In 2019, the combined value of Australian super funds – of which union-linked industry funds are a large part – was equivalent to $2.7 trillion, or two thirds of the Australian Stock Exchange. Industry super funds, whose managers are fifty percent chosen by unions,  are predicted to overtake retail super funds in 2024. It’s a very big carrot. Of course, when Scott Morrison attacks superannuation (for example, by legislating to allow more bankers on the boards of industry funds) he does not have workers’ interests at heart. Even so, it is undeniable that superannuation has ensured – under the tutelage of finance capital – a stable revenue stream and career paths for compliant union leaders and MPs.

From the 1980s onwards, the ALP weaned itself from its historic working class in favour of an almost total dependence on the union bureaucracy and the state (namely, an army of MPs and their staffers). The working class cannot advance its interests without solidarity and militancy. On the other hand, mediation is the core purpose of the Accord era union bureaucracy. And having de-fanged the labour movement, Labour MPs could only fall back on compromise. This convergence is the secret of the modern ALP’s stunning mediocrity.

Still, not only does the ALP have a vestigial commitment to democratic socialism in its constitution – it even has a few socialist members. And while the least vocal or visible in the race for an Australian democratic socialist revival, some are at least having a go. NSW state MLC Anthony D’Adam has recently launched Unprecedented Times, a democratic socialist magazine which has published eight articles under the direction of eight editors. In the ACT, former Socialist Alliance member Tim Dobson is hoping a volunteer driven campaign that explicitly praises and draws from Sanders’ movement may deliver electoral success and rebuild the activist Labor tradition.

If these genuine ALP socialists are able to rally members and connect with public sentiment, the most immediate barrier they will face is the party’s authoritarian constitution. Should a preselected leftist seem a threat, the ALP constitution grants the National Executive extensive power to hear appeals and to override branch decisions. This happened in 2016, when Bill Shorten overturned the preselection of Maritime Union of Australia backed candidate, Chris Brown.

Some on the left have pushed to empower members in the preselection process – for example, former ACT Labor secretary Matt Byrne, who resigned late in 2019, just a year out from an election. But to be effective, changes would need to take place at a national level. The extreme concentration of power in the hands of the parliamentary caucus and the National Executive will be huge barriers.

And any idea of fast-tracking change via a popular leadership upset, a-la Jeremy Corbyn, is likely doomed to failure. Nomination requires backing from at least 20 per cent of the Parliamentary caucus, who also hold 50 per cent of the vote. Notwithstanding promising signs of a major realignment of the trade union left, barring the miraculous deregistration of the SDA, a left (let alone socialist) majority at the ALP national conference is more unlikely still.

 

The Greens

The mainstream Australian left, instep with the national culture, is pragmatic and largely disinterested in articulating itself in terms of historic political traditions and ideologies. This is particularly disarming when historic crisis calls for a transformative, universal vision.

Shaun Crowe, a federal opposition speechwriter, disagrees. Earlier in the year, he tweeted: ‘I don’t understand why Team Bernie spent four years defining their program as socialism and political revolution, instead of common-sense improvements to the lives of ordinary people.’

The irony is that the only political leader with a national platform who has tried this approach is Adam Bandt. Even before he became leader, there were clear indications that he was paying attention. In 2019 he campaigned for re-election on the slogan ‘for the many, not the few’. Since becoming leader, he has campaigned forthrightly for a Green New Deal. In the aftermath of the Christmas fires, he donned his Blundstones and defended coal miners even while campaigning against fossil fuel companies.

Since the COVID-19 crisis, the Greens have been the only consistent and determined voice of opposition in federal politics. Bandt has fought for the unemployed, for casual and migrant workers left out of the JobKeeper scheme, for renters facing eviction and for frontline workers. He has published articles and interviews protesting the closure of parliament and linking his Green New Deal with the massive state intervention that will be needed to recover from the recession. If only the ALP were led by someone like this.

In short, Bandt is the frontrunner in the race to construct a popular and combative left.

There are early signs that this kind of concrete and unashamedly radical approach is working. Despite COVID-19 suppressing voter turnout, Brisbane City Councillor Jonathan Sri was re-elected in March on the back of massive swings – almost 12 per cent in his ward, and up to 15 per cent in others. This is no small thing; Brisbane City Council, with an annual budget of $3 billion, is more akin to a state seat. In his own analysis, Sri credits a strong, volunteer-driven ground campaign, professional and modern design and messaging and an unashamedly radical yet detailed and localised program. Defying stereotypes about issues-driven inner-city leftists, Sri’s campaign laid emphasis on redistributive economic demands.

However, to maintain and build on successes like these, Bandt will need to address two difficult issues.

The first is the question of social class. The Greens’ membership is still concentrated in affluent electorates. With the exception of the NTEU, the Greens do not command a great deal of support from trade unions. It’s easy to see inner-city millennials voting for the Greens by default. But it’s not so easy to see workers in the outer suburbs, almost totally alienated from politics, changing their perception of the party. From a distance, many will think Bandt and Di Natale are the same. To be clear, this is not simply an electoral question: a small party without support from the labour movement cannot hope to marshal the kind of extra-parliamentary power needed to counter the mining lobby and defend a leftist reforming project.

The second question is rebuilding an activist membership. The party never built student organisations that may have sustained an activist focus. Instead, they recruited largely from movements that, over time, declined and became less radical. So the Greens’ heyday as a protest party is behind it; long gone is the sea of green triangles at demonstrations. Yet, volunteers were crucial to Sanders, Corbyn – and Sri’s – success. To rebuild this activist base, it will be necessary to renew Greens membership.

The internal plebiscite to change rules around the selection of Green leaders failed by a frustratingly slim margin (62 as opposed to the needed 66 percent). However, it is unlikely to be the end of the debate. The campaign for one member/one vote elections has been supported by a number of high-profile left Greens, including Jonathan Sri, Jim Casey, Scott Ludlam and Lee Rhiannon. They are likely to push the question at the Greens’ national conference later this month. Democratising the party may help convince a new generation of members to join. This, in turn, may help head off internal threats to the left that broadly reflect class divisions within the Greens.

For example, a contest is potentially brewing over the Victorian Senate seat left vacant by Di Natale. Julian Burnside has previously indicated an intention to contest the preselection. Burnside is a lawyer, principled defender of refugees and, until a few years ago, a member of the male-only ‘Savage Club‘, an exclusive secret society with ‘bizarre rituals that require members, when they are greeting a new member to make guttural noises and beat their chests.’ On the other side, stands Lidia Thorpe, a Gunnai-Gunditjmara Woman and principled advocate for Aboriginal self-determination who has never been a member of the Savage Club.

This is a microcosm of a deeper conflict that, until Bandt, left Greens were losing. The party pushed Lee Rhiannon out and sabotaged Alex Bhatal. Most federal seats that the Greens are now closest to wining are affluent and Liberal. Still, if the swings in Brisbane City Council can be replicated – for example, in the Queensland Federal electorate of – the Green left may push forward. Leftist Max Chandler-Mather, who was Sri’s campaign manager, needs 1 in 5 Labor voters to switch sides in order to win the next Federal election. It’s a large swing – but if, in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, the Greens can maintain their recent pattern of left wins, the balance of power in the parliamentary party may tilt leftward.

Yet perhaps the Greens’ most significant challenge is ideological. The Greens seem to combine romantic anti-capitalism with Laclau- and Mouffe-inspired populism on their left, and radical ecology with technocratic centrism, on their right.

In other words, the Greens are a left-liberal party. This fits with their socio-economic and geographic composition. Liberalism tends to see the world through the lens of values and issues. Education, technical competence and personal qualities can come to matter more than class lines.

This can result in a disarming blindness to the conflictual structure of politics, especially given the vast power of mining and financial capital. It’s a kind of urbane and morally upright alternative to Labor’s collaborationism. Yet it threatens to trap the Greens as a perpetual minor party, under pressure from both sides and capable of pleasing no one. This has been the fate of Green parties everywhere else.

This ideological baggage will also make it harder for Bandt to replicate Sanders and Corbyn’s success, whose movements had democratic socialism at their heart. While this wasn’t enough to win the Democratic primaries, it was enough to inspire an army of millennial volunteers for whom capitalism has been an unmitigated disaster. And while Corbyn wasn’t able to reverse the historic decline of working-class support for the BLP sufficiently to beat the Tories in an election defined by Brexit, his unashamedly socialist leadership rebuilt BLP membership to half a million.

Bandt has a choice. If he follows Shaun Crowe’s advice (ditch the worldviews, stick to good reforms), he risks becoming the Elizabeth Warren of Australian politics. If he finds a way to transform his party’s worldview (and branding), he may win a final victory against the Green right, pose as a genuinely radical alternative and bring a generation of democratic socialist activists into its ranks. Basically, if Adam can find a way to drop the s-bomb on the Tories on bikes, he may have a shot at being the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of Australian politics.

 

The Unions and the far left

In Iowa, JPS Pork runs a factory employing two and a half thousand Honduran, Ethiopian and Macedonian workers with little English and no healthcare, who work night shift, in dangerous conditions for low wages. Sanders assigned multilingual field organisers to canvass outside the factory from 10 pm to 3 am, several nights a week.

Trade unionists in Melbourne have helped to organise similar workers. Strikes organised by the NUW (now the United Workers Union, UWU) won at Baiada, Toll, Polar Fresh, and most recently, Chemist Warehouse and at a Coles’ warehouse.

In Iowa, the efforts of Sanders’ field organisers paid off. Factory workers voted for Sanders, helping hand him an early victory. In Australia, despite the apparent potential, these union organising efforts have not connected with broader political questions.

The majority of unions are, of course, closely wedded to Labor – and this is unlikely to change shy of a sizeable and realistic alternative. But even so, some unions have begun to tack hard to the left. Most important is the UWU, whose response to the COVID-19 crisis has been decisive and radical. Immediately after Morrison’s second bailout package, the union released a plan of its own calling for the nationalisation of key industries under worker co-management and a universal wage guarantee that includes all categories of workers, including migrants. The plan also calls for investment in renewable energy and a moratorium on rent and mortgage payments.

Furthermore, in a recent interview, National Secretary Tim Kennedy has criticised Labor in strident terms, suggesting that during the Hawke-Keating era, the party ‘… became a vehicle for capitalism.’ At the same time, despite the similarities between the UWU’s plan and Adam Bandt’s, Kennedy expressed scepticism that the Greens could mobilise the social forces needed to move from vision to reality.

He has a point – and in more ways than one. The main strength of trade unions is not big-P-politics. This is not to say that unions cannot or should not articulate political positions. Sometimes this can be crucial. Rather, unions are not organisations primarily suited to politics. A union is a universal class organisation, open to workers irrespective of their political views (within its economic jurisdiction, anyway) with a particular purpose: the advancement of the economic interests of its members. This is what gives unions their power and mass following.

A party reverses these terms. Its membership is limited according it its program and ideology. But a party articulates a universal vision that in principle ought to be applicable to a society as a whole. This is why unions need political parties, without which trade unions will generally only participate in politics in a reactive and defensive manner. Only parliamentary parties are capable of altering the political or legislative framework of a nation, let alone of advancing a society-wide vision. Unions need politics. And conversely, socialists need unions: without the social weight of the labour movement, a leftist party cannot win.

In its purest form, the Australian democratic socialist recipe is deceptively simple: combine the social power of the workers’ movement with a class-based, universal political vision.

The Victorian Socialists (VS), who ran in the 2018 Victorian State election and the 2019 Federal election, came closer to trying this formula than any organisation on the far left in years. In the federal election, VS ran in three lower house seats. Despite inadequate funding, little experience and no realistic pathway to victory, VS won on average 4.5 per cent and up to 10 per cent in some booths in more working class or progressive suburbs.

The 2018 state elections were more encouraging still: the party polled at 4.2  per cent in Melbourne’s Northern Metropolitan Region, home to half a million, finishing in fourth place, after the Greens and well ahead of a host of minor parties. This amounted to almost 19,000 votes – more than the 15,900 that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez needed to win Democratic preselection in New York’s 14th Congressional district. Ultimately, Glen Druery’s manipulation of preference flows gave the contested upper house seat to a candidate with thousands fewer votes.

These results – which would have been impossible without support from a handful of left unions – should be read as no more than a ‘proof of concept’. Winning a vote was hard work; in the state election, volunteers knocked on over 95,000 doors, letterboxed 300,000 homes and leafleted tens of thousands of commuters at railway stations. On polling day and the week prior, 750 volunteers handed out how-to-vote cards, easily matching or exceeding the ALP and Greens, both numerically and in enthusiasm. VS lacked a Sanders but, for a little while, it had the beginnings of a volunteer army. Union support (and a few high-profile individuals) helped the party to rapidly recruited 1,700 members. VS volunteers were disproportionately young, contemptuous of Labor and disinterested in the Greens. They were motivated instead by VS’s unapologetic yet concrete socialist message.

Despite this strong start, in the twelve months following the 2019 federal election, the party’s two main constituent groups, – Socialist Alliance and Socialist Alternative – retreated into their usual routines. Lacking an alternative leadership and structures such as branches, a staff, offices, etc., VS lapsed into unofficial hiatus. In recent months, following a debate initiated by a number of independent VS members, this situation has begun to transform. Recent party meetings have decided to initiate a membership drive, create committees to facilitate activism, increase the rate of dues, upgrade internal and external communications and to host events on a regular basis. If these spaces are utilised by VS’s members – especially those who do not belong to another group – the party may be rejuvenated. It may even flourish. This is happening not a moment too soon given the rapidly approaching late 2020 municipal council elections. These represent VS’s opportunity to demonstrate an ongoing ability to mobilize a socialist vote.

Sadly, the Socialist Alliance took this debate as its cue to depart the coalition. It would be naïve, however, to assume that this will leave VS out for the count, especially given its considerable independent membership and the undeniable tenacity of its remaining constituent group, Socialist Alternative. Nevertheless, long-term success will require electoral wins – which may be more difficult given party’s relative lack of implantation in local communities and the phased introduction of single-councillor wards. By way of contrast, Stephen Jolly, Yarra’s tireless socialist councillor who advocates for residents year-round, is poised to increase his already remarkable local vote.

More importantly, a new socialist movement cannot be built on elections alone. Roses aren’t enough; we also need bread. It remains to be seen whether VS can rebuild the unity and momentum required to deliver on this count, following the municipal council elections.

 

Conclusion

As Karl Kautsky observed, there is ‘no such thing as politics without prophesying. The only difference is that those who prophesy that things will always remain the same do not know that they are prophesying.’

Naturally, there those who have already hardened their hearts against the slowly rising democratic socialist tide in the USA or who have declared the return of class politics overblown. Even if they are right, the only possible result is self-imposed irrelevance. Whoever wins a debate like this deserves their prize: another decade wandering the wilderness.

Instead, if we look for a moment with optimistic eyes, we might even perceive an advantage to Australia’s circuitous path to left renewal. Unlike in the UK and the USA, socialists are nowhere near striking distance of power. But in a twist that might once have described as ‘combined and uneven development’, this may be a strength. Corbyn and Sanders, having broken through unexpectedly, found themselves in hostile parties, with a responsibility to follow through. As urgent as our times are, socialists in Australia can march to the beat of their own drum. And presuming the ALP remains totally impenetrable, there is an advantage in building to the side: you can leap over sclerotic and anti-democratic twentieth-century vestiges.

Modern pharisees will say that they are owed recompense for their years of drudgery, during which circumstances limited all of our aspirations. But in the temple of politics, where political capital is only worth as much as its answer to the question at hand, debts are not recognized. They will say there is no audience, or if there is, that it isn’t good enough. But the potential of a subaltern movement can only be proven decisively with wins. And these require good organisation and good politics.

Left Greens, a handful of ALP socialists, a few key unions and some on the far left have begun to realise this and have begun to build. This is likely a winner-takes-all game. Whoever breaks through convincingly first will likely find themselves joined by many new success-hungry friends, exhausted with dead ends and squandered potential.

None of this is inevitable. But if it happens, Australian socialists may find themselves standing alongside their comrades in the USA and the UK, once more involved in serious politics.

 

Image: Diego Rivera, ‘Electric Power’

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Daniel Lopez is a Contributing Editor for Jacobin Magazine and a member of Victorian Socialists.

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    • What a concise and perceptive account of the state and possibilities for a rejuvenation of socialist politics in Australia.
      It does my old red heart good to read stuff like this!

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