Socialist Alternative (Australia)
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Socialist Alternative is a revolutionary socialist organisation in Australia, identifying with the Marxist tradition of "socialism from below". Formed after its founding members were expelled from the former International Socialist Organisation (ISO) in 1995, today it claims to have the largest active membership on the Australian far-left – as acknowledged by some on the far-left. With branches across Australia, their membership operates within the trade union and student union movements and grass roots campaigns.
Though one of Socialist Alternative's stated aims is to contribute towards building a revolutionary party that can intervene in – and lead – mass working-class struggles, they do not consider themselves a political party at their current size and influence. Originating in the political tradition of the International Socialist Tendency, Socialist Alternative defend the position that a socialist revolution can only come about through "workers taking control of their workplaces, dismantling existing state institutions (parliaments, courts, the armed forces and police) and replacing them with an entirely new state based on genuinely democratic control by the working class".
In March 2013, Socialist Alternative merged with the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) on the basis of agreement around a common revolutionary perspective outlined in an updated Statement of Principles which makes no reference to the theory of "State Capitalism" or other historical and theoretical differences that had previously prevented the two tendencies from uniting around their common revolutionary perspective.
Socialist Alternative host an annual far-left political conference in Melbourne each year called Marxism, which has grown to attract over 1000 attendees – which has featured international guest speakers such as John Pilger and Malalai Joya – becoming the largest conference of its kind in Australia. Socialist Alternative also host regular political meetings and events and produce political commentary and analysis through their own various publications and through other publishers in which the organisation puts forward their positions on Australian and international issues. In 2013, Socialist Alternative started distribution of a fortnightly newspaper and website titled Red Flag.
- 1 History
- 2 Campaigns
- 3 Membership routine
- 4 Theory
- 5 Australian Politics
- 6 Annual conference
- 7 Publications
- 8 Mergers
- 9 See also
- 10 References
- 11 External links
- 12 Further reading
Socialist Alternative was established in 1995 by ex-members of the former International Socialist Organisation (ISO) in Melbourne. Following debates over the orientation of the ISO to the Australian political situation, the members were expelled for arguing the ISO held "overblown" expectations of the 1990s combined with "a super-inflated estimation" of their own capabilities. This was part of the debate internationally within the International Socialist Tendency (IST) over the nature of the contemporary political situation and how socialists should respond, with the leading organisation in the IST, the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) arguing, the 1990s were like "the 1930s in slow motion". Like in Australia, splits occurred within the IST in other countries, including New Zealand, Greece, Germany, Canada, South Africa and France. In addition to splits, the International Socialist Organization in the United States were expelled from the IST.
Socialist Alternative has links with a number of other groups which were previously part of the IST, such as the ISO in America, the Internationalist Workers' Left in Greece, Socialisme International in France, and both Socialist Aotearoa and the International Socialist Organisation in New Zealand. Since 2013, Socialist Alternative has maintained permanent observer status within the International Committee meeting of the Fourth International, a worldwide organisation of revolutionary Marxists.
Until 2003, Socialist Alternative was based primarily in Melbourne, until the organisation began to establish branches in other Australian cities following a surge of growth out of the S11 protests against the 2000 World Economic Forum meeting in Melbourne. However Melbourne still maintains the largest membership nationally with four branches. Socialist Alternative now claims to have the largest active membership of any far-left organisation in the country.
Socialist Alternative was invited to join the Socialist Alliance in 2001. The Alliance grouped together the Democratic Socialist Perspective (DSP), the ISO, and other Australian far-left groups and individuals. Socialist Alternative eventually declined to join due to the Socialist Alliance's strong emphasis on running in parliamentary elections. This parliamentary emphasis in the flat political climate was seen by Socialist Alternative as a restriction to building activism on the ground and representing a turn towards reformist politics. Socialist Alternative entered into unity discussions with the Revolutionary Socialist Party (a split from the DSP) in 2012 "on the basis of a straightforward revolutionary Marxist program... for socialism in Australia today", which prompted the Socialist Alliance to reopen unity discussions with Socialist Alternative.
In 2006, Socialist Alternative claimed their members were wrongly accused by the Australasian Union of Jewish Students of "exploiting tensions in the Middle East to promote anti-Semitism" at the University of Melbourne and other Melbourne campuses. They were also accused of assaulting Australian Liberal Students' Federation members who supported Israel during the Lebanon War. Socialist Alternative was likewise accused of being unsympathetic to Jewish groups during what was allegedly the highest period of anti-Semitism since the 1940s and demonstrating on university campuses where the majority of this was occurring. A member of Socialist Alternative from RMIT University wrote a controversial email referring to some pro-Israel students at that university as "Zionists (who) felt the need to assert their racism and fetish for genocide and mass slaughter of Arab people".
Socialist Alternative members argue that they are anti-Zionist and not anti-Semitic. It claims that accusations of anti-Semitism are slander from apologists of Israel who defend an apartheid state and maintain that such slander "just makes it more difficult to fight actual anti-Semitism". Socialist Alternative claims that its goal is to "demolish the lies upon which the racist state of Israel was built, and argue for the only real solution to the Middle East conflict – a single secular, democratic state in historic Palestine, one in which Palestinians and Jews can live in equality and peace".
Socialist Alternative maintains that Israel does not represent Jews, but simply claims to do so. They point out they have Jewish members, such as Rick Kuhn and Patrick Weiniger and insist that the organisation "take[s] a firm stand against all forms of racism". Socialist Alternative claims that they have "supported innumerable protests against anti-Semitic bigots such as the Holocaust denier David Irving" and believes that Israel's most strident critics are often Jewish themselves, citing Jewish Marxists Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg in their opposition to Zionism, who saw it as a pro-imperialist ideology.
With a presence within most broad-left campaigns, Socialist Alternative has participated in protests against what they perceive as attacks by the Australian Government on industrial relations, student unions and higher education, Aboriginal rights, refugee rights, women's' rights, LGBTI rights the environment and free speech. They have been involved in anti-war, anti-racism, anti-Zionism, anti-capitalism, anti-corporate greed and anti-uranium mining demonstrations. Socialist Alternative members are identifiable during street marches with the red flags carried in their contingent or red bloc.
Socialist Alternative has been involved in organising within anti-war campaign groups such as the Stop the War Coalition and has participated in demonstrations across the country, including the protests against the 2011 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, the 2008–2009 war on Gaza, the 2007 APEC Conference, the 2006 G20 Summit, the 2006 war on Lebanon, the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan and have been involved in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign and solidarity actions with the Arab Spring.
Since the Howard government introduced legislation in 2004 to ban same-sex marriage in Australia, Socialist Alternative has participated in the Equal Love campaign – the main campaign group that advocates marriage equality in the country. Many Socialist Alternative members have been elected as National Union of Students Queer Officers and have used this position to promote Equal Love and attack the Rudd-Gillard Government for not repealing the ban. Socialist Alternative claim they play a key rôle in holding the campaign together, which resulted in the largest demonstration of its kind in Australia outside the 2011 ALP National Conference. Socialist Alternative member and Victorian Equal Love Convenor Ali Hogg, was voted the most influential LGBTI Australian by Samesame.com.au and the sixth most influential Melburnian by The Age for her activism in gay and lesbian rights in 2011.
Since early 2009, Socialist Alternative has played an active rôle in building Students for Palestine, a nationwide network of pro-Palestinian student activists and have been involved in demonstrations and campus activity, including the protests against the 2010 Gaza flotilla raid and helping fundraise for the Viva Palestina 5. In 2011, Socialist Alternative members were among 19 arrested in a Melbourne demonstration targeting Israeli-owned chocolate chain Max Brenner as part of the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against the state of Israel.
Socialist Alternative is active within broad campaign groups formed under the Howard government to mobilise opposition to mandatory detention and offshore processing. They have participated in protests against detention centres such as Woomera and Baxter, including the breaking out of refugees in 2001. Socialist Alternative is opposed to the entirety of mandatory detention as a policy and supports open borders. Since the election of the Rudd-Gillard Labor government in 2007, they have continued to organise and campaign around the issue.
The organisation has branches in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Canberra, Perth and Adelaide. In Melbourne, Socialist Alternative are based at Victorian Trades Hall. Branches hold meetings to discuss current political developments and Marxist history and theory. Socialist Alternative advertise public meetings through leafleting on street stalls, campuses, at demonstrations and through bill posters.
Socialist Alternative participates in campus student union elections and in the National Union of Students – in an attempt to win positions to influence student politics – as a faction, of which it claims to be the largest to the left of the National Labor Students. They are known for their hostility towards both the Liberal and Labor parties. Despite their presence in many social movements, Socialist Alternative activists have often come under criticism for having a "counter-productive" attitude towards movement work, prioritising recruiting new members over sustainable activism. They are also known for their use of megaphones to drown out political debate and avoid the possibility of actual engagement in reasoned debate over any issue they disagree with through the loud, repetitive chanting of slogans. They have come under attack from a range of factions in student politics, including Liberal students, both Left and Right Labor students and claim to have been slandered by the Australasian Union of Jewish Students, for their strong opposition to the state of Israel.
Students and student union activists form a large composition of Socialist Alternative's membership and their political work often emphasises university-based campaigns. According to National Executive member Mick Armstrong, Socialist Alternative's focus on student work is part of a perspective that the organisation has adopted for the political period, due to what they see as their limited size and influence in the working class movement and the lack of any substantial radicalisation in society. Socialist Alternative's political orientation to students mirrors the development of the British Socialist Workers Party during the 1980s.
Socialist Alternative members are, or have previously been active in student unions such as the Queensland University of Technology Student Guild, Swinburne Student Union, La Trobe Student Union, Monash Student Association, University of Melbourne Student Union, RMIT Student Union, University of Western Sydney Students' Association, University of Sydney Students' Representative Council, Charles Sturt University Students' Association, Curtin University of Technology Student Guild, University of New South Wales Student Representative Council, University of Melbourne Graduate Student Association and Victorian College of the Arts Student Union. The membership of the organisation also includes secondary school students, active in their schools.
Socialist Alternative was deregistered as a club at Monash University in September 2014. Matthew Lesh, Political Affairs Director of the Australasian_Union_of_Jewish Students, claimed that members of the organisation refused entry to a group of Jewish students on the basis of their religion and assumed political beliefs. The Socialist Alternative denied this claim. Socialist Alternative is threatened with no longer receiving funds from the university and not being able to book university venues.
Worker members of Socialist Alternative are politically active within the trade union appropriate for their industry, while employed student members are also involved in their respective trade union. Socialist Alternative has active trade union members in, amongst others, the Australian Services Union, the National Union of Workers, the Australian Education Union, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, the Community and Public Sector Union, the Electrical Trades Union of Australia, the Rail, Tram and Bus Industry Union, the Australian Nursing Federation and the National Tertiary Education Union, in which lecturer and Socialist Alternative member Liam Ward was elected to the RMIT University Branch Committee as part of a left-wing oppositional ticket that replaced the previously established union leadership in 2010.
Socialist Alternative reject the practice of forming separate 'red unions' such as Unite, arguing that such projects isolate socialists from the organised working class and are premised on a top-down method of artificially substituting a radical union leadership for the rank and file, instead arging for activists to rebuild rank and file organisation within existing unions irrespective of their conservative leadership. In 2010, Socialist Alternative member and Queensland Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association delegate Duncan Hart organised supporters of same-sex marriage within the union in a rank and file challenge against the socially conservative SDA leader Joe de Bruyn.
The working class
Socialist Alternative analyses the world in terms of the political and economic ideas of Karl Marx and subsequent theorists in the Marxist tradition, including the Trotskyist and International Socialist traditions. In holding that capitalism cannot be reformed to meet human needs, it believes that the capitalist class and its state must be overthrown by means of a working-class revolution from below, in which the direct producers in society unite to overthrow their employers and the ruling class, through democratically expropriating the means of production and reorganising society along lines of mass democracy through workers' councils. Or, as Marx and Frederick Engels asserted: "The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself." They hold that a socialist society will, by removing the material basis for oppression and democratically reorganising society to meet human needs, place an end to not just to wage slavery but eventually, to all class exploitation. Socialist Alternative also believe that as a result of a socialist revolution, phenomena such as racism, sexism and homophobia (which they argue only materialised with the emergence of class society) will eventually disappear alongside the material realities that underpin them – among which include the nuclear family and the state.
Socialist Alternative are hostile to other far-left tendencies who look to forces outside the working class, such as anarchism and Castroism, which they characterise as substitutionist, elitist and ultimately, siding with reaction. Socialist Alternative also believe identity politics – such as liberal feminism and black nationalism – present a false unity between members of oppressed groups across class lines by positing that all members of an oppressed group hold a common interest in fighting oppression. In the case of the latter as an example, Socialist Alternative believe women's oppression can only disappear with the abolition of all classes.
Socialist Alternative claim to be committed to avoiding pretensions they believe characterise much of the left. Describing itself as a "propaganda group" at its current size, Socialist Alternative attempts to relate to its audience primarily on the level of ideas, rather than seeing itself as a party that can be capable of leading mass struggles. While Socialist Alternative supports existing trade unions as essential components of workers' struggles, they believe that capitalism can only be successfully overthrown if a revolutionary party is built to challenge the hold of the ALP and the trade union bureaucracy over the working class, in conjunction with similar parties internationally. Socialist Alternative's strategy for building a socialist organisation is outlined in the book, From Little Things Big Things Grow, by one of its founding members, Mick Armstrong.
Socialist Alternative has over the years tried to establish unity talks with both Solidarity and its predecessor organisation, the International Socialist Organisation, (the group from which Socialist Alternative's founders were expelled) yet have remained unsuccessful. This could be in part to do with Socialist Alternative's perspective of currently identifying as a propaganda group, which has been controversial within the Australian far left in general.
Socialist Alternative announced in October 2012 that it was engaged in unity discussions with former political rivals the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), stating that: "Unity is possible between our two organisations because we agree on the fundamental question of the necessity of building a clear cut revolutionary organisation in the here and now" advocating "an organisation of activists involved in the struggles of the day arguing for socialist politics, not a party of passive paper members oriented on parliamentary elections." While acknowledging the two organisation's "not immaterial" differences on the class nature of the USSR, Cuba and Vietnam, Socialist Alternative state that members would not have to disavow their opinions as they believe "it is possible to discuss these and other important political issues as they arise... The organisation will decide its policies and orientation collectively and democratically but all members will have the right to publicly express their individual opinions."
Socialist Alternative hold the position first put forward by Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State that class society cannot exist without "institutions of coercion" (the state) in order for the ruling class to remain in control. They are therefore hostile to the police and what they deem other "repressive" forces such as the courts, parliament, government bureaucracy, education system and the media and argue the implied neutrality of these bodies to be a myth. They have claimed that the rôle of the Australian police force since inception has been to stand with the country's rulers against the interests of the mass of Australia's workers and the poor. Socialist Alternative accuse the police of institutionalised racism, corruption, violence, of attacking protesters and striking and picketing workers and of the "blatant murder" of Aboriginals in custody.
In 2012 the Police Federation of Australia demanded that the Victorian Trades Hall Council cancel a Socialist Alternative public forum on "police racism and violence", as Trades Hall was where the meeting was to take place. The Council complied with the Police Federation's request however the meeting went ahead after a number of people turned up for the meeting and occupied the Trades Hall foyer, causing the Police Federation to split from the Council.
Socialist Alternative supports the right to self-determination of Australia's Aboriginal people and opposes the intervention which was initiated by the Howard Government and continued by the Gillard Government in the Northern Territory. The organisation condemns racism and has in the past criticised other far-left groups in Australia, such as Solidarity and the RSP, for what they deem capitulating to racism.
Socialist Alternative also accuses the governments of Australia, the United States and the EU of promoting racist scapegoating toward Arabs under the guise of the "War on Terror". They support the right of Muslim women to wear the hijab or burqa and accuse secularists on the far-left who oppose them, such as members of the New Anticapitalist Party in France of anti-Muslim racism, arguing bans on Islamic dress further oppresses Muslims and encourages racism towards them. Socialist Alternative also unconditionally support the right of people in the Middle East today to resist US and Israeli occupation, in line with Vladimir Lenin's position of "the right of oppressed nations to self-determination".
Socialist Alternative oppose both of Australia's major parties' policies on the mandatory detention of asylum seekers seeking to enter Australia, which they characterise as racist and believe that there should be no restrictions on immigration. They call for the release of all refugees currently held in detention, the closure of all immigration detention facilities and contrast Australia's border control laws with accusations of the Australian military and federal police of having invaded the national borders of countries such as the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Another position of Socialist Alternative which separates them from much of the Australian far-left, particularly the former Democratic Socialist Perspective (now merged with the Socialist Alliance), is their opposition to the Australian military intervention into East Timor in 1999, seeing it as not a humanitarian action but an opportunity for Australia to secure its strategic and economic interests in the region.
While not a member of the International Socialist Tendency (IST), Socialist Alternative generally remains committed to the ideas and positions associated with the IST tradition of Trotskyism (particularly on the topic of the betrayal of socialist revolution by later leaders in the movement, as outlined in The Revolution Betrayed by Leon Trotsky) advanced by Tony Cliff, which sees the states of the former USSR, Eastern Europe, China, Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba as being in no sense socialist, rather forms of "state capitalism", where workers are exploited by a bureaucratic ruling class.
Socialist Alternative have argued that rival socialist organisations (particularly on the Australian far-left) – such as the Socialist Alliance, the former DSP and the RSP – who promote the idea that such states represent some form of socialism (or what the IST and Socialist Alternative term "socialism from above") are Stalinist in nature. Socialist Alternative does not however preclude individuals who subscribe to such theories from joining their organisation. Socialist Alternative sees the October 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia as a genuine socialist revolution but assert the following "imperialist" attack on the country and the failure of the revolution to spread to Western Europe lead to its ultimate defeat by Stalin's "counter-revolution".
SA are hostile to the conservative Liberal Party and are highly critical of the Labor Party (ALP) for its perceived rightward shift and acceptance of neo-liberalism. SA classifies the ALP as a "capitalist workers' party" – seeing it qualitatively different from the Liberal Party due to its organisational relationship with the trade union bureaucracy – that still governs in the interests of the capitalist class. Socialist Alternative are critical of the ALP's Fair Work Australia, which they see as a similar version of the Liberal's WorkChoices, alongside its maintenance of the Australian Building and Construction Commission.
Socialist Alternative moreover hold that the Greens are not a left alternative to Labor, and consider it a middle-class party equally committed to the maintenance of Australian capitalism as the two major parties and accuse them of "populist left nationalism". Socialist Alternative reject reformism outright and defend Rosa Luxemburg's position in her work Social Reform or Revolution that reformism is "not the realisation of socialism, but the reform of capitalism".
Socialist Alternative maintain the position that parliamentary elections are not the key to social change and do not stand candidates at their current size and influence. However, they do not reject voting in elections outright and see elections reflecting the state of mass political consciousness. Therefore, the organisation promotes who they vote for and who they believe the left should support during election periods, for example calling for the left to unite around SYRIZA in the 2012 Greek legislative election.
In the 2013 federal election Socialist Alternative called for a first preference vote for the Socialist Alliance in seats they stood for and to vote the Greens above the ALP to send a message that "a significant number reject Labor’s disgraceful shift to the right on refugees and other issues." They also accused the ALP of paving the way for the Liberals' electoral victory.
In the 2010 Victorian state election they actively campaigned for Socialist Party candidate Steve Jolly in the seat of Richmond, and called a vote for left-wing candidates in other electorates, instead of a vote for the ALP or Greens, arguing that Jolly's union-backed campaign confirmed the possibility of a left alternative to the ALP gaining strong votes. They called for voting the Liberals last.
In the 2007 federal election they called for a first preference vote for the Greens and a second preference to the ALP, as a protest vote against the party for what they saw as the party's rightward shift.
In the 2004 federal election they called for a vote for the ALP or the Greens in the lower house in the hope to remove the Liberals, and a vote for the Greens in the Senate to remove the Democrats for what they saw as their co-option by the Liberals. The Greens vote was again a protest vote against the ALP, whom Socialist Alternative characterised as alienating their traditional support base.
In the 2001 federal election they called for a vote for the Socialist Alliance in the seats it contested, for its "unambiguously anti-war and pro-worker stance". In the other seats, they called for what they said was "little choice but to grit our teeth" and vote for the ALP over the Liberals.
Socialist Alternative hosts an annual public conference called Marxism each Easter weekend at the Victorian College of the Arts, supported by 3CR. As of 2012, Marxism is co-hosted with the International Socialist Organisation from New Zealand. The conference invites activists from across Australia and internationally as guest speakers. It has grown to attract over 1000 attendees and has become the largest far-left conference of its kind in the country.
John Pilger said of the conference:
Marxism in Melbourne is now Australia’s premier festival of debate and free speech on issues that are either excluded from or suppressed by the mass media: issues such as the government’s agenda for indigenous Australians, Palestine and propaganda in its many disguises. I salute the organisers.
Notable speakers at Marxism have included:
Marxism 2013 included a return of Pilger and Foley, along with other speakers such as Billy X Jennings of the Black Panther Party, Brian Jones of the US International Socialist Organization, former leader of the US Socialist Workers Party Barry Sheppard, representatives from the International Socialist Organisation of Aotearoa/New Zealand, the Revolutionary Socialist Party and the Socialist Alliance, activist and blogger Antony Loewenstein, activist and author Jeff Sparrow, Australian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions conference co-organiser Kim Bullimore, representatives from the Nava Sama Samaja Party from Sri Lanka, Partido ng Manggagawa from the Philippines, and activists from Mindanao, Indonesia, and Pakistan among others.
Socialist Alternative publishes its fortnightly newspaper and website Red Flag, In 2010, the organisation launched a biannual theoretical journal, Marxist Left Review, edited by Sandra Bloodworth. The journal aims to contribute and respond to current debates on the left provide a more substantive and in-depth publication. As of 2009, members of the organisation have edited the annual online theoretical journal, Marxist Interventions (MI). The journal is an update of the MI, which the organisation also contributed to. The update aims to move beyond Australian politics, yet retains an Australian bias. The overall aim of MI however, remains the same: to make Australian Marxist writings more readily accessible to audiences. Organisation members have also contributed texts to international publications Work by leading Socialist Alternative members has been issued by various publishers. Socialist Alternative also self-publishes a range of pamphlets.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Socialist Alternative (Australia).|
- Socialist Alternative Website of Socialist Alternative
- Red Flag Online newspaper by Socialist Alternative
- Marxist Left Review Biannual theoretical journal by Socialist Alternative
- Marxist Interventions Broad-left theoretical journal by Socialist Alternative members and others in the International Socialist tradition
- Marxism Socialist Alternative annual national conference
- Stop the War Coalition Campaign group for anti-war activists in Australia
- Equal Love Campaign group for same-sex marriage rights in Australia
- Refugee Action Collective Campaign group for refugee advocacy in Australia
- Students for Palestine Campaign group for Palestinian solidarity in Australia
- Documents and statements Discussion documents, position papers and the like written by Socialist Alternative.
- The origins of Socialist Alternative: summing up the debate Journal article summarising the group's origins up to 2010.
- From little things big things grow Socialist Alternative book on strategies for building socialist organisations.
- Socialist Alternative and the ISO – Perspectives for Socialists Socialist Alternative document discussing the group's history.
- Socialist Alternative (1995 -) Reason in Revolt: Source Documents in Australian Radicalism archive containing early Socialist Alternative publications.
- Marxist Interventions: Articles from Australia in the social sciences Old Marxist Interventions archive.
- Marching down Marx Street: The International Socialists in Australia, 1972–92. Tom O'Lincoln's Red Sites document discussing the history of the International Socialist Tendency in Australia.