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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Responding to Chris Bowen on Labor's 'Socialist Objective'

above: Federal Labor Shadow Treasurer, Chris Bowen

The following article is a critique of a recent contribution on debate surrounding the  ALP’s ‘Socialist Objective’ by ALP Shadow Treasurer, Chris Bowen in a Fabian Pamphlet. Bowen’s ‘Crosland-ite’ agenda has more depth than is to be found in other corners of the Right-faction.  But Bowen fails to come to grips with the potential benefits of a democratic mixed economy.  Meanwhile in the Left itself we do not engage with the implications of the ‘Socialist Objective’ – socialist culture is fading amidst day-to-day practical opportunism.

 (the first of two essays; the essay following this will respond to Jenny McAllister)

by Tristan Ewins

In a recent Fabian Pamphlet (‘What is Labor’s Objective?)  Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen makes his case against the existing Socialist Objective.

He observes its current form:

 “The Australian Labor Party is a democratic socialist party and has the objective of the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange, to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features in these fields.”

And he contends in response that:

 “the socialist objective [does not reflect] our ambition for a modern, fair, sophisticated, cosmopolitan, outward looking, multicultural country.”

Thereafter Bowen rejects those parts of the Objective which propose “the establishment and development of public enterprises” as well as “democratic control of Australia’s natural resources”.  Specifically he suggests the privatisation of Qantas was justified; and that the alternative was a waste of public funds.

Continuing, he rejects what some have come to call ‘State Socialism’; but nonetheless argues the case for an effectively Crosland-ite agenda involving equal opportunity in education and life chances; but equality of outcomes in health.  (Anthony Crosland was an important reformist democratic socialist thinker within British Labour who – beginning around the 1950s - proposed an emphasis on public services and social infrastructure as opposed to socialisation of industry)    Bowen reinterprets this agenda as a more robust social liberalism – which cares about the individual in all their dimensions - when considered in contrast to “classical liberalism”

BOWEN also argues for “a decent community environment” with government ensuring the provision of “hard” as well as “soft” infrastructure; which means not only “transport and roads”  but “a liveable community with attractive public art, open spaces and a good environment.”

He concludes the Objective is out of date because it says nothing about multiculturalism, indigenous rights, engagement in the Asia-Pacific, preservation of the natural environment and action on climate change, and also equality of opportunity in education and equality of outcome in health.

He states: “We should mean what we say in the socialist objective. Currently we don’t. It clearly does reflect the modern Labor challenge, and with some updating it could very easily do so."


Firstly, Bowen would be wrong to suggest that a Socialist Objective in the Labor Party would have to exclude indigenous rights, the environment, the nurturing of a multi-cultural Australia, or engagement in our region for the extension of beneficial trade and the preservation of peace.  It is true that the Objective was originally penned in the 1920s and probably needs to be updated.  But Australian socialists – and indeed Australian Communists as well  – were amongst the first to promote these causes; as well as the cause of free, universal and equal suffrage.  It is not a stark choice:  of ‘these important modern causes on one hand, OR of socialism on the other’.

In the context of alluding to Labor’s historic support for extensive privatisation, Bowen appears specifically to reject passages which commit Labor to:  “the establishment and development of public enterprises” as well as “democratic control of Australia’s natural resources”.  Following this he suggests his opposition to the “state socialism” – a common ‘political-bogeyman’.

To start the meaning of ‘state socialism’ as argued by Bowen is not properly laid out.  In the past the term has been used to describe a centralised command economy after the way of the former Soviet Union.  But disturbingly it has also been deployed with the apparent aim of stigmatising any kind of extensive mixed economy.  Any form of democratic socialism or social democracy which supposes a significant role for the state as an economic participant is commonly ruled out as ‘state socialism’. 

In response to these kind of arguments: while there are solid reasons for socialists to support a ‘democratic mixed economy’, you don't have to be a socialist to support these kind of policies. A mixed economy with a substantial role for natural public monopolies, government business enterprise, public authorities and public infrastructure -  was supported by Conservatives – even including Menzies - for decades.  But the point - ironically - is that while we may aspire to a more democratic economy, natural public monopolies are also good for capitalists. (and indeed for consumers as well) This is because natural public monopolies can reduce economic cost structures in such a way as flows on to the private sector.  Hence a ‘hybrid-democratic-mixed-economy’.

Continuing: strategic government business enterprises are good for competition - and hence also good for consumers.  Specifically, they can frustrate any collusive economic behaviour between corporations - and prevent the rise of private monopolies.

These kind of policies – which can include strategic extension of the public sector – should not be ruled out as a consequence of some confused shibboleth of ‘state socialism’.

Further – while the creation of a ‘democratic mixed economy’ can be desirable for socialists/social democrats and social liberals alike – a ‘modern socialist objective’ need not restrict itself  alone to the extension of the public sector.  (though that should certainly be part of the agenda)  Consumer associations can also empower consumers; and mutualist and co-operative enterprise of various kinds can overcome exploitation and sometimes also alienation - while nonetheless preserving market relations and avoiding the problems associated with a ‘traditional command economy’.   

These issues are indeed more complex than assumed both by orthodox Marxists and also by capitalist ideologues.  Regarding exploitation: while there are problems with the Marxist ‘labour theory of labour’ which assumed all labour to be equal; nonetheless the structural relationship of exploitation – of the expropriation of a surplus – remains problematic.  And while deferral of consumption by small investors may deserve a return, the economic resources and returns for the wealthy cannot be justified in such a way.  Finally: alienation remains a reality on account of the repetitive and stressful nature of much work.   But democratic structures and processes can ameliorate the lack of control working people have over their labours; and promote a sense of ownership over those labours and the products of those labours.  Government can also intervene to provide wage-justice for the working poor – on the basis of respect for all labour.  Also government has a role to deliver the welfare dependent from poverty; and to provide opportunities for personal growth – through reduced working hours and a fair age of retirement; but also ensuring access to cultural participation and education.  Education must also be about personal growth, and not exclusively about the demands of the labour market.

In conclusion, Bowen’s ‘Crosland-inspired social liberalism’ has more to recommend it than the typical neo-liberalism we endure in the public sphere every day.  At least he sees a role for government in ensuring ‘hard and soft infrastructure’.  Ideas of ‘soft infrastructure’ could also be extended to provision of public (physical and virtual) space for civic activism – as opposed ‘the privatisation of public space’ we have become used to – where public life is reduced to consumerism.  Meanwhile his stated goal of ‘equal outcomes in health’ suggests a very robust public investment; including specific programs to ‘close the gap’ for indigenous Australians, the poor, the mentally ill and so on.  

However Bowen's rejection of public exploitation of Australian natural resources, and the strategic creation of public enterprises, simply adheres to the Ideology of the day - without concern for the tens of billions in forsaken revenue from natural resources on the one hand, and the ability to progressively cross-subsidise, enhance competition, provide efficiencies through natural public monopolies, and socialise profits - on the other.


“We should mean what we say in the socialist objective. Currently we don’t. It clearly doesn’t reflect the modern Labor challenge, and with some updating it could very easily do so.”

In conclusion, there are some points worth observing here. 

Firstly it is legitimate to argue for Labor to mean what we say and say what we mean.  A problem with the Socialist Objective as we have known it has been the confusion as to what comprises exploitation.  For Marxists exploitation means more than just poor wages and conditions.  It refers to the expropriation of surplus value from wage labourers by capitalists. It suggests a structural injustice where capitalists expropriate part of the value that in fact they do not create themselves. They expropriate a portion of the value created by workers.  Hence a devastating moral critique.

The problem here is the idea that socialisation of “industry, production, distribution and exchange” to the extent necessary to end exploitation actually infers blanket socialisation if one is proceeding form a Marxist definition.  Because all wage labour involves the expropriation of surplus value.  By contrast some non-Marxist definitions might simply infer the elimination of poverty and the promotion of social inclusion in a ‘Third Way’ kind of sense.  Obviously the difference, here, is great – and we need to be clear what we really mean.  Hence the famous ‘Blackburn Amendment’ (made to the 1921 Objective; and proposing socialisation where necessary to end exploitation)  is confusing in the sense it leaves open the question of how we interpret that exploitation.   

(nb: my own opinion is that economic exploitation by large capitalists - including surplus extraction - cannot be morally justified 'on principle' - but that we have a problem transitioning to a fundamentally different society - because we must adapt to the real balance of forces in the international economy, and the need to remain engaged with transnationals who bring with them innovations and investment; but we should take democratisation as far as we practically can; The balance of forces may shift in the future; And in the meantime both definitions of exploitation have their uses so long as we are clear what we mean)

But within the Left itself we are already losing touch with our socialist roots.  We might well fight to preserve the Socialist Objective doggedly and persistently: but many of us would have no idea as to its meaning and origins.  Marxism itself has become ‘decidedly unfashionable’.

Marx once wrote something to the effect that socialists cannot change the world ‘behind peoples’ backs’.  Hence it is a mistake to suppose holding on to the Socialist Objective will have the kind of consequences democratic socialists want – unless it finds reflection on our day to day discourse; in the consciousness of our activists; and in our actual policies.

A smart move would be to include material which makes gestures towards the plural nature of today’s Labor Party – which is simply an observation of fact.  But while at the same time establishing democratic socialism and radical social democracy as core traditions in the ALP – which inform our values, our policies, and the Platform itself.

If we are to retain the Objective – perhaps in an updated and modernised form – then in the Left itself we must commit to having democratic socialist values and ideas inform our policies and our activism.  This means a counter-culture involving forums, publications, democratic socialist schools and conferences – which preserve and cultivate Left culture – and prevent the dissolution of our traditions into an opportunistic, uncritical and ‘mainstream’ liberalism which forsakes the critique of capitalism; or which abandons the projects of economic democracy; of social wage and welfare extension; of popular struggle ‘from below’ including class struggle; and the strategic extension of the public sector.

IN short: On the ALP Left itself we need to get our own house in order as well as fighting for reform of the National ALP Platform. If we fail ‘to get our own house in order’ any number of temporary symbolic victories will in the end come to nothing.

Nb:  Debate on this essay is very welcome here!

An analysis of where Labor should head on its Economic Platform specifically can also be found via the URL below – and debate is welcome there as well.


  1. Fixed an error in this article re "competition' - which does NOT apply to natural public monopolies.. I had natural public monopolies confused with government business enterprises. My mistake.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. I left out a word. See my wordier comment below:

  3. Comrade Bowen clearly wants a 'capitalist objective' to replace the 'socialist objective', and so do many in the PLP who tend to favour business interests over the interests of labour. I don't, but I'm just a rank and file ALP member who is in a fighting union, the AMWU. And who is my union fighting? The same business interests which drive the Liberal Party, the ones who just negotiated Australian workers rights to jobs in Australia away via the China Free Trade Agreement.

    Many amongst the voting citizenry are aware that the various free trade agreements are actually agreements to control trade in ways which do not benefit most of the citizenry, the people who depend on wages to make a living. The China Free Trade Agreement is a case in point. The CFTA in its current format will allow Chinese companies to bring in foreign workforces to work on a variety of projects. They will be able to do this without offering these jobs to local workers first. Clearly, this is to allow businesses to make higher rates of profit than would be the case if they were required to use Australian workers to produce their wealth.

    Voters are not going to be impressed with a party which barracks for the 'capitalist objective- lite'. Why go for the mid-strength when you can just as well have the full-strength?

    I can't see myself or my mates working hard to get such a party elected. In short, if Comrade Bowen and his faction want to promote disillusionment, apathy and political paralysis amongst their labour base, axe the 'socialist objective'. I'm sure there will be plenty of jobs at the top of the corporate ladder waiting them when they leave politics.

  4. This is an important discussion. It's one thing to fail to live up to a principle but another entirely to abandon that principle altogether. For some time the ALP has been operating as a de facto social-liberal party in any case but the nominal commitment to some kind of democratic socialism at least gave those of us on the Left something to point to as, if nothing else, a reminder of the soul the party is meant to have. For Chris Bowen the solution is to take a leak on the "light on the hill" and just resign the party to a future of fumbling around in the dark reacting blindly to whatever comes up.
    Labor needs to recommit to a meaningful politics of transformation. I've read Bowen's book and in it he conflates the term "social-democracy" with "social-liberalism". This is one of those pernicious definitional slips that has set in since the 1990's and is gutting social-democracy globally. In fact, this "third way" reading of social-democracy has nothing to do with Tony Crosland or other reformers of that era who believed that capitalism had already been reformed into a post-capitalist political economy. The abandonment of socialism by right-wing social-democrats came at exactly the point when neo-liberalism was in full counter-revolution mode against the post-war political economy. Crosland's views have been overtaken by history and, if we wanted to be consistent with the spirit he expressed during his own life, we would probably concede that Crosland would today be on the left-wing of social-democracy in many countries. This moral, intellectual and organisational rot has truly set in deeply but we desperately need to fight back against it. The intellectual torpor, laziness and willingness to play the faction games of the party machine has a lot to do with why we're now at such a low point politically. We need to pull our socks up and start living up to our name as the "socialist left". Too many ALP leftists take their factional allegiance with a grain of salt and feed Bowen's argument that we are not a socialist, or even social-democratic, party and that factions are just a bureaucratic machine. This is a disgrace and it's as much the fault of the Left as of anyone.
    Like Tristan says, the crucial issue for a revival of a meaningful Labor politics is aiming at a democratic mixed economy. I am actually somewhat comfortable with leaving certain classical socialisation objectives off the table for now but we desperately need a strategy that creates the basis for a widespread, participatory, stakeholder-based model of economic governance that empowers ordinary people. If we could build even a northern/central European-type industrial relations/enterprise governance regime I believe it would ultimately become easier to contemplate deeper questions of ownership. Right now, we've just straight up lost that debate before it has even begun because Labor is perceived by noone as a party representing any kind of alternative to the status quo. For too long we've just been the Tweedle-Dum to the Liberal Tweedle-Dee- a bit more interested in social justice, a tad more human but by no means a radical force for meaningful change. What have Labor activists been doing to mobilise ordinary people, to try to disseminate democratic socialist values among ordinary people and communities? Nothing. The whole party has devolved into an election machine and vehicle for the advancement of careers for professional wonks. Things are crook comrades, things are pretty bloody crook......
    Come what may, we need to resist this push to convert the Labor Party into a second-rate version of the US Democrats and reassert our socialist and social-democratic values. When Bowen says we "don't mean it" concerning our socialist objectives, this ought to be taken as a reprimand and source of shame for the party's Left. We need to start meaning it again.

  5. I have also added the following because I wanted to make it clear I accepted both interpretations of exploitaiton; and with that the moral consequences as well. (ie: that exploitation - particularly expropriation of a surplus by large capitalists - is not morally just)


    (nb: my own opinion is that economic exploitation - including the extraction of a surplus - by large capitalists cannot be morally justified - but that we have a problem transitioning to a fundamentally different society - because we must adapt to the real balance of forces in the international economy, and the need to remain engaged with transnationals who bring with them innovations and investment; but we should take democratisation as far as we practically can; The balance of forces may shift in the future; And in the meantime both definitions of exploitation have their uses so long as we are clear what we mean)

  6. Exploitation is embedded in the wage system.

    It's a question measuring labour time.

  7. I'd agree that Crosland supported the post-war social-democratic settlement - and as such he'd be positioned on the relative left of today's social democratic and labour parties. Which is a sad admission - as it suggests radical social democracy is disappearing from the equation altogether - Unless we fight for it! But also - if we consider a Rawlsian (radical, egalitarian) social liberalism - it could be acceptable to work alongside people with those commitments in the ALP. The danger is where avowed 'social liberalism' is considered after the way of some Blairite Third Way - which stigmatises any extensive role for the state; which adopts aspects of social authoritarianism; which supposes 'equality of opportunity' on its own is enough - yet in reality does not even strive to achieve that. Shayn is right, though, that there is little movement in the sense of disseminating socialist ideas and values throughout the ALP. If the SL does not do something on this front perhaps no-one will. (except perhaps more progressive Fabians) Its true that the SL is a faction and not a Party. But if we don't develop a counter-culture ultimately we will be swallowed up into the dominant opportunistic pragmatism. A session of the Socialist Objective and the Economic Platform for the Fringe for Conference would have been good. But nothing on that front? We need to do better.

    1. I shall continue to push for: “The Australian Labor Party is a democratic socialist party and has the objective of the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange, to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features in these fields.” And that doesn't mean a 'mixed' economy is my goal, although it would be better than what we now endure.

      The wage system is inherently a system based on labour's exploitation. Once one is aware of this, it is as absurd to think of a fair wage system as it is to think of a fair robbery.

    2. Mike; Though to increase the wage share of the economy; and to increase the share of the economy taken up by the welfare state and social wage - would be a gain for the working class. As would re-regulation of the labour market to the point of improving wages and conditions for the working poor. Ending the wage labour system is a good ideal to work for in principle if we share a Marxist notion of surplus value. But what can we actually achieve in the foreseeable future? What's the balance of class forces here and globally? The problem is that the Left itself doesn't have enough of a critical outlook anymore. And most people on the Left when you ask them will argue for the rights of refugees and equal marriage (and good on them for that) - but they won't know what surplus value is. We have to get our house in order on the Left first. Because as Marx insisted we cannot change the world behind society's back....

  8. The way I see it is "Rome wasn't built in a day". If we ever want socialism (in the more transformative sense) to be back on the agenda, we need to start by introducing socialising and de-commodifying reforms that lead us to what might reasonably be termed "a democratic mixed economy". We need to be practical and realistic because the vast majority of people react like you are speaking in a Martian dialect if you talk about ending the wage system. Unfortunately, we need to start with practical achievable forms around which you can raise a socialist consciousness, otherwise you just end up looking like a marginal wacko.
    It is unfortunate that the political economy and corporate-shaped intellectual climate is so unfavourable to ideas that ought to be common sense but we don't get to make history under circumstances of our own choosing. We can insist on radical slogans and ideas but the majority of people, including most workers, will not be there with us. Standing on the sidelines like a dog barking at a passing caravan and insisting on some pristine socialist vision will not change anything. Politically, it is a waste of time. The line between pragmatism and principle is a very fine one I admit and political movements all too often fall into pure pragmatism but I don't think we have any choice but to walk that line as best we can. Our choice is to work within the system with the hope of changing it or retreat into a splendid, self-righteous isolation as politically effective as choosing to be a manic street preacher furiously waving a "repent! The end is nigh!" sign.

  9. I agree that we (the ALP) can't take "ending the wage labour system" vigorously to a Federal Election as a mainstream social democratic party under today's circumstances. We wouldn't be taken seriously. The existing Socialist Objective is ignored because it bears no resemblance to practice and hasn't for a long time. (though at the same time it's the lack of that practice which has created a 'vicious circle' fuelling the discrediting of Socialism - Opportunism taken too far means a 'self-fulfilling prophecy')

    What we do need is an internal discourse in the ALP and in the Left which keeps radical and critical ideas alive. The Socialist Objective hasn't sunk the labour Party for over 90 years so far - So I don't think holding on to it in some form has to hurt us now. But to reform it so as to say our foreseeable goals are around a democratic mixed economy - could evade any misunderstandings. We could also do with recognition of the failings of past command economies, and recognition of the existing balance of forces; and that autarky won't and cannot work. A (reformed) Objective itself could make references to the proper place of markets - but that even markets must be democratised.

    But we should be open to a broader idea of the role of the public and democratic sector than some ideas of market failure allow for. Markets fail in a variety of ways. In moral and distributive ways. And in practical ways regarding collapse, confidence, instability and waste. Some narrow ideas of market failure don't allow for this. And moral and distributive ideas of market failure include the moral problems of alienation and exploitation, and of the distribution of political and economic power.

    The challenge is to keep socialist culture and ideas alive while adapting to 'where voters are at' publicly. We need to lead debate - but cannot do that 'without any compromise'. There is also a need for a stronger radical Left - to the Left of the ALP - who can pose radical ideas publicly without compromise. Organisations like the Fabian Society can also keep ideas alive WITHIN the Party.

    So hold on to the Objective - but reform it to the effect of clearly distancing ourselves from the Stalinist command economy; and recognising within the Objective itself the role of markets - preferably as democratised as is practicable. And also an openness to 'the real world' - and the limits of socialisation given the balance of forces here and globally - and the undesirability of cutting ourselves off from the global economy.

  10. They're debating the Objective at this blog as well. see:

    I think on 'Social democracy versus democratic socialism' it depends what we mean. I believe in substance radical social democracy and democratic socialism can and should be interpreted as the same thing... The author also makes a great point re: the Objective "being used as a divisive weapon to show who's in charge'. Lots of insight there - and appreciated. As I argue as well - one path is to include recognition of the plural nature of today's Labor Party. Recognise that radical social democracy and democratic socialism are 'core traditions' in today's Labor Party. And that markets - and capitalism more broadly - 'fail' at both practical and moral levels. That includes exploitation, povertyand the distribution as wealth; as well as waste and instability.