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Saturday, July 18, 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 The argument is forwarded (after Lenin ironically) that ‘in the ALP we were never socialists’; ‘that socialism is an outdated and disproven philosophy’ and that socialism ‘has an unbearable connotation’ thanks  to a number of totalitarian regimes from the 20th Century.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 Indeed, in a recent debate with a NSW Left member the argument was put that socialism is ‘outdated’ because “the vicissitudes of industrialisation no longer tell”.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 for 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….


  1. Social ownership and democratic control of the collective product of labour is what socialism means to me. To the right, socialism means undemocratic Marxist-Leninist regimes. To a lot of the left, it means what you say it means, Tristan, a more democratic form of the wage system. My kind of socialism has never yet been established. My kind of socialism can only be established in Australia by the immense majority voting for it and organising unions to back up their ballot.

    I will have to carefully consider my membership in the ALP, if the 'socialist objective' is dropped. I do support left-wing measures to increase the amount of the Gross Domestic Product of labour going back to its producers via progressive taxation. That's not socialism, but it is a step towards greater well being for the immense majority, the people in my class, the working class, those dependent on wages for making a living.

    In the meantime, I suspect the right will get its way and promote the outdated system of wage labour by pushing the ALP more and more in the direction of becoming LNP-lite for the post-modern generation in the revolving door of corporate State capitalism.

  2. I would also have to consider seriously whether to continue in my (largely symbolic) membership of the ALP if the socialist objective was totally dropped. It is true that the ALP has not acted as any kind of socialist- or even social-democratic- party in years but there is an important qualitative difference between ignoring a commitment you nonetheless pay lip-service too and dropping that commitment altogether.
    I would be prepared to tolerate a re-wording of the socialist objective to embrace a notional social-democracy and might be persuaded to hold on to my party card despite my lukewarm enthusiasm but a total rightward shift towards a US Democrats-type "big tent" so shapeless as to embrace every clown in the baggy-pants, sorry. Count me out. That's a bridge too far.
    If you're not prepared to give the odd glance at the dimming embers of the light on the hill at least have the respect not to take a whiz on it to put it out entirely.

  3. Shayn - Though arguably the ALP is already a 'big tent' in a sense. We include everyone from the AMWU and CFMEU to the AWU and even the SDA. Democratic socialism is also coming under attack from within the Left itself. At the same time we need enough cohesion to have a chance against Abbott - who leads a government so reactionary it makes the Howard government look good... What do we do about it? For me step one is to consolidate democratic socialist ideology within the Left, and get the Left itself involved in promoting counter-culture. Then from a position of strength - that is, clarity about what we stand for in the Left itself - take the debate to the Right and even into the Right. I think a US-style 'big tent' is pushing things way too far. I oppose ideological Convergence on some kind of insipid 'Third Way' relative Centre. But the fact is that we already have people of that mindset working within the Right - while others move to liquidate socialism within the Left. Again: what do we do about it?

  4. Another issue is that we need a 'fall back position' in case we're going to lose an Objective which proclaims the ALP as a democratic socialist party. If we can secure a compromise which proclaims us a Party incorporating democratic socialist and social democratic tendencies and traditions - then that's better than 'losing the lot' and openly embracing some 'Third Way' ala Giddens, Blair, Clinton.

  5. NBN is the National Broadband Network. It was supposed to be a publicly-constructed optic fibre network - fibre-to-the-home. But Abbott has changed the focus to cheaper, relatively inferior technology. (Fibre-to-the-node)

  6. Comrades might wish to make a comment at the "Labor Herald" here:

  7. RESPONSE TO TONY WOOD at Labor Herald: The problems with share ownership are manyfold. Firstly, economic power and wealth depends on HOW MANY shares you have. So token share ownership by small investors does not change the situation under capitalism as we know it. Most wealth is held by the top 10%, and almost no wealth is held by the bottom 20%. And even those in the middle cannot realistically aspire to the wealth and power of the super-rich. Democracy is based on ‘one person one vote’ – free, universal and equal suffrage. Capitalism on the other hand is like the old ‘weighted suffrage’ where individuals had vastly increased voting power (much more than one vote each) according to wealth and/or nobility. Free, universal and equal suffrage itself was promoted by democratic socialists in the 19th Century when democracy was practically unheard of. A small investor has no hope of having comparable influence to a genuine large-scale capitalist. But government investments, services, enterprise etc – is accountable to all of us equally as voters and citizens – and where markets operate they are accountable to us as consumers like any other enterprise of course…..

    Meaningful economic democracy could take many forms. Co-operatives are an ideal form to democratise the economy – to give the workers themselves creative and managerial control over their work; at the same time countering mechanisms of exploitation. This can work on a large or small scale. Or can potentially take a ‘hybrid’ form – when workers’ stake-holding existing alongside State Aid and a public share – intended to provide the capital necessary to expand and remain competitive in large and often global markets. Some co-ops could even involve a stake-holding from specific regions which could stand to suffer with the loss of investment and jobs that may otherwise occur. For instance – Geelong and Broadmeadows could have co-invested in a ‘bailout’ for the automotive industry in Victoria. Or Shepparton could have taken a stake in the bailout for SPC-Ardmona.

    But a “democratic mixed economy” is more complex than this. It can also include collective capital mobilisation – for instance superannuation – though democratically administered public pension funds may be preferable by better spreading risk and providing more equal outcomes. There’s also the option of wage earner funds as tried in Sweden – or perhaps reconceived as ‘citizens funds’ given the shortcomings of that model originally.

    Other options include mutualism in banking, insurance and so on. Or co-determination agreements between workers and bosses – which deliver managerial influence and consultation to the workers. Or even self-employment – which also bypasses exploitation.

  8. Finally there is a very legitimate role for the public sector. There are natural public monopolies in infrastructure in transport, communications, welfare, energy and water. Privatisation, here, has added to cost-structures, confused consumers, seen the fleecing of the general public… Meanwhile at a different level – Local governments can provide cheap child care and libraries, parks and gardens and recreation facilities. Government Business Enterprises can actually enhance competition while at the same time providing cross-subsidised products and services for the poor and vulnerable. (eg: in insurance and banking) And some areas like communications and defence industries – are crucial to ‘national security’ – in terms of potential self-reliance, data security etc.

    Also, Government can play a core role not only in ensuring disability services, but also aged care social insurance – of the highest quality but without regressive user pays mechanisms inflicted on the working class and the poor. That is without mentioning the role of government in providing the highest quality public education – from pre-school to primary, and from Secondary through to Tertiary – and even ‘personal growth’ education which is about helping people develop their cultural aptitudes and adding depth to their lives – not just catering for ‘the demands of the labour market’.

    ALSO re: the capitalist system’s role in ensuring the distribution and production of goods… Its not so much capitalism as it is MARKETS. But It is very-well conceivable that markets themselves could be democratised via the strategies discussed already, but also through other social regulation. (eg: of the labour market)

    Central Planning did some things well. Producing steel and coal; pumping out cars which admittedly all looked the same; producing tanks en masse in the USSR in WWII. There are some things government planning can still do best. (eg: in areas of natural public monopoly re: services and infrastructure) What a Command Economy does NOT do will is respond to the INTRICACIES of DIVERSE and EVER-DEVELOPING consumer need. Whether through modern entertainment – music, information technology, gaming, films and television, Smartphone Apps, a diverse array of choices for dining at home or dining out…

    Where markets produce innovation responding to the intricacies of consumer demand – then markets provide for this best. That is – At least under conditions of relative abundance as the developed economy can now provide. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn't try and democratise those markets where they work well.

    However, realism means we see there’s no road currently open to democratise all the big transnationals – eg: Samsung, Sony, Apple, Microsoft. We operate in a global capitalist economy. Consuming these companies innovations improves our lives ; as do the associated jobs which are created. We cannot and should not cut ourselves off from the global economy of course.

    Though there are things we can do – things we should have done in the past. Like socialising mining as much as practicable – capturing ‘super profits’ like was done with oil in Norway. This could have provided a ‘long term war-chest’ of many tens of billions. No we can’t just expropriate Gina. smile emoticon But we can impose stronger and fairer taxes. And we could even establish a public sector exploration company.

    Finally of course distributive justice is also a part of the Socialist Objective. We need fair welfare. We need appropriate regulations and rights in the labour market. We need to redistribute to counter the severity of unfair outcomes. Again: through welfare and labour market regulation, but also though public-owned infrastructure and services, and ‘social wage’ provisions in health, education, aged care etc.

  9. (Concluding from the last two posts - See the Full Debate at Labor Herald - in response to Luke Foley - see:

    Without all of this we are ‘just another party of the neo-liberal right-wing consensus’. We demobilise and liquidate our own movement; our own values; our ideas and our very identity. Without this kind of outlook we turn away from the class interests of our constituents. Pretending that a threadbare minimalist welfare state and other bare-bones protections ala some ‘Third Way’ are enough.

    Instead we need a vision to extend democracy to the economy ; and provide for our constituents needs on the basis of political, social and finally economic citizenship. And have a vision which is about enhancing peoples’ lives in a multiplicity of ways – which cannot be measured by narrow economic conceptions. (eg: GDP alone)

  10. This is an alternative 'Socialist Objective' as a compromise between the existing Objective and Luke Foley's proposal to drop all mention of democratic socialism altogether. Debate anyone?

    The Australian Labor Party is a Party in the traditions and practices of democratic socialism and social democracy. Our aim is to extend the principles of democracy, liberty and equality – in the political, the social and the economic sense – throughout Australian economy and society. And to work for those same principles globally in solidarity with like-minded parties and social movements.

    We also believe in working for the empowerment of every individual to realise their full potential and contribute towards a just society .

    We believe in a society where citizens contribute according to their abilities, and where their needs are provided for comprehensively in areas as diverse as health and lifelong education, housing and aged care, transport and communication, authentic and meaningful civic/democratic activism, cultural participation and personal growth, and social inclusion. We recognise human suffering which arises in the context of alienating, repetitive and strenuous labour – as well as because of poverty; and we perceive in abundance and democratisation opportunities to overcome these debilitating trends. We are open to the likelihood of evolving human need with social and technological development.

    For the sake of justice and of human dignity we stand against exploitation and discrimination, and against domination and oppression. ‘Market failure’ persists through distributive injustice and power imbalance; through cyclical crises; and through the failure of existing capitalist economies to account for human and environmental needs where these are in conflict with the imperative of growth. We strive to extend and defend a democratic mixed economy that balances markets with strategic planning ; and which seeks to extend the democratic and public sectors strategically. Finally we are open to the future possibilities of human co-operation.