From Progressive Australia: “Beyond preoccupations”

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A friend of mine recently asked me “why socialism?” – why would progressive people on the left still call themselves socialists or argue that our goal should be socialism?

It was with this in the back of my mind that I went to Progressive Australia, especially to listen to the international speakers from the UK and USA who have had to grapple with as disastrous a slide back to the parliamentary right as Australia.

I was reminded of an article from 1983 by Jenny Taylor, called Canvassing for Socialism in New Left Review, which was a reflection on UK Labour’s election loss. It is remarkable how similar our situations are and how similar our discussions are – although of course in Australia, we won a minority government.

Over the last few years left intellectuals have spent much time analyzing Thatcherism and the historical basis of the new right’s popular support. While this has been crucial for understanding the precise nature of the political crisis, now I think the focus needs to shift. Endless and repetitive scrutiny of the right can easily lead to a sort of pessimistic detachment whereby the left intelligensia behave as though another article on the fine-tuning of Thatcherism or a discussion on the details of Victorian ideology by itself constitutes a coherent oppositional politics rather than being a part of and preparation for it. The greatest challenge that faces left intellectuals today is how to turn the preoccupations that have to a certain extent been formed by a particular generational and cultural experience, into a mode of education and propaganda that can appeal to an entirely different generation that share none of the assumptions of the postwar period, of the children of 1945 and of 1968. This does not mean being nihilistic about the socialist tradition, but it does mean that we can take no assumptions for granted in arguing for it. [My emphasis.]

Considering the Australian situation, much of the discussion on the Left – both inside Labor and outside – is trying to understand and analyse the success of Tony Abbott and Australian conservatism’s electoral success.

From UK Labour’s perspective, there is now discussion and debate about future directions of Labour, from either a Blairite perspective or a Brownite one. The Blairite “Progress” vision is the Purple Book – a fusion of Labour Red and Conservative Blue. The other perspective is “Blue Labour” proposed by the likes of Jon Cruddas and James Purnell (who spoke at Progressive Australia) – which aims to rehabilitate some Labour “traditions” around crime, workers rights and immigration. In Britain at least, there is a recognition that the logical conclusion of New Labour and Blairism was a drift into neo-liberalism (called economic rationalism in Australia) – which alienated Labour’s traditional voters as well as the “aspirational” middle-class.

There is no such debate in Australia following the 2010 election that destroyed our parliamentary majority. Instead, our parliamentary leadership are muddling through, and largely relying on Third Way language and tactics to attempt to triangulate the media, the electorate and the Liberal Party. We haven’t given up neo-liberalism – hence talk by Wayne Swan, Tanner and Gillard about budget surpluses, tax relief and reducing regulatory burdens. We talk in the language of our enemy.

What this near defeat in Australia, and the defeat in the UK, is doing however, is causing both parties to re-think how they engage. The point of Progressive Australia is how can we (left activists) articulate a progressive vision that engages both our traditional constituency as well as non-ideological swinging voters. (It was a pity that there were only about four federal Labor MPs at the conference; all  but one were back-benchers.)

Taylor again (remember, in 1983):

The defeat may prompt Labour to actively participate in extra-parliamentary struggles, in the trade-union movement, around jobs and social services, in the campaigns initiated by the women’s movement, in the peace movement. However it’s more likely that involvement in these sorts of activities will be seen by the party leadership to be undermining Labour’s respectability and credibility, and that the defeat—particularly the blunders around unilateral disarmament—is likely to encourage the plp, supported by sections of the trade-union leadership, to reject unilateralism, to move backward on the inroads made by feminists, and to concentrate on high-profile media credibility. The concomitant danger is that a dichotomy will be set up by the Labour left between ‘real grassroots’ activity and the nasty media.

Taylor was partly right in 1983 – the successive defeats by UK Labour led to New Labor and Tony Blair: preoccupied with media management rather than “extra-parliamentary struggles”. She is also right about Australian Labor. Our parliamentary leadership care more each day about “the nasty media” than with struggles in the community “around jobs and social services”.

The term “progressive” has been advocated by the likes of George Lakoff, while successfully emancipating the Democrats from the label of “liberal”, is more wishy-washy and stand-for-nothing in countries with a social democratic tradition. “Progressive” doesn’t mean anything. It is values free. In the USA, the term transposes the “values” of the Democrats onto it. In the UK and Australia, with strong labour movements, labour unions and labour parties, it has less currency. Rather, it is the term favoured by people who don’t like to refer to themselves as “left-wing”. It dilutes rather than strengthens. It’s point of strength is that it doesn’t have the baggage of labels like “left” or “social democrat” or “democratic socialist” – and that is also its weakness. It doesn’t mean anything and it has no inherent vision. (At least conservatism wants things to “stay the same”.)

Chifley’s Light on the Hill speech is a clarion call to fight for the labour vision.

I try to think of the Labour movement, not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody’s pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people. We have a great objective – the light on the hill – which we aim to reach by working the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand. If it were not for that, the Labour movement would not be worth fighting for. [My emphasis.]

Labor members, activists and leaders refer back to Chifley’s speech because it is one of the greatest, clearest, simplest articulations of the purpose of our movement – the Labour movement. Its objective is as relevant today is it was 12 June 1949 when Ben Chifley delivered it.

But while the light on the hill is the most famous part of that speech of Chifley’s, there are other important parts it that don’t get quoted so often:

No Labour Minister or leader ever has an easy job. The urgency that rests behind the Labour movement, pushing it on to do things, to create new conditions, to reorganise the economy of the country, always means that the people who work within the Labour movement, people who lead, can never have an easy job. The job of the evangelist is never easy.

Because of the turn of fortune’s wheel your Premier (Mr McGirr) and I have gained some prominence in the Labour movement. But the strength of the movement cannot come from us. We may make plans and pass legislation to help and direct the economy of the country. But the job of getting the things the people of the country want comes from the roots of the Labour movement – the people who support it. [My emphasis.]

Our preoccupations are too often with internal organisation, with sleeker, more technological electioneering, with better spin and media management. We as a party have yet to face up to the realisation that we are reaching a point where our main electoral “base” comes primarily from residual support – that is, peoples’ memories of what we once were.

A drift to the “centre” – that is, to the right” – ignores the fact that there is nothing inherently right wing in people’s desire for self respect, for independence, for feeling that they are doing ‘productive work’. But looking at pronouncements from our parliamentary leaders and many within the Labor machine – and at our recent electoral propaganda – you would be forgiven for thinking that there was.

Our preoccupations instead must be challenges with imagination – and imaginative vision of a future in Australia that speaks to the majority of Australians without resorting to the language of conservatism or neo-liberalism.

Which brings me back to “socialism”. Socialism is an objective. It contains within it a vision of the future, and a means of achieving it. Socialism is praxis.

Chifley’s objective to “make someone more comfortable, give to some father or mother a greater feeling of security for their children, a feeling that if a depression comes there will be work, that the government is striving its hardest to do its best” is rightly viewed as exceptionally modest.

Socialism takes Chifley’s objectives and imagines an Australia, a world, that is active and liberated from need. It is different from social democracy – which smooths out the excesses of capitalism but doesn’t seek to replace it – by seeking to dislodge the capitalists from their position of control. It emerges from lived experience and is developed out of popular common sense.

Much of the intellectual thought that goes on on both the social democratic and socialist side of politics largely floats free from practice in a rarefied atmosphere of academia. It is often impractical, not concrete, does not combine thinking with doing.

“Why socialism” is answered because it is the only values-system or world-view that intimately marries theory and practice – a way of understanding the world, and fundamentally changing it.

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