Building socialism in Australia (Published in The Broad Left Conference Bulletin No. 2, March 1986, p.3)

I agree with Jim Levy (Bulletin 1) that the overall focus and purpose of the NBLC should be to make socialism a relevant aim for Australians. Australians are very affluent in world terms. Who are the people likely to want to act to radically change the present situation? What motivates such actions? In Australia today, there are various groups which are active around social change issues, though the activists are a tiny proportion of the total population. These groups include:


• trade unions
• social democratic parties
• socialist/communist parties
• peace/disarmament
• environment
• aborigines (black power; land rights)
• women’s liberation
• alternative lifestyle
• self-help
• gay liberation
• anti-racist
• international solidarity
• animal liberation
• children’s liberation.The building of a socialist Australia cannot be achieved without three prerequisites – common agreement over:
a) a vision of what we want to build, where we want to go;
b) a theory of how our society has become what it is, and how it might be changed in the direction we want it to go in; and
c) a programme of action (including organisational forms and practices) that will be effective in achieving our aims.It is a measure of the diversity and complexity of life in Australia that it is rare for activists in one of these groups to be active in any others. A common understanding of their aims and perspectives has not yet been achieved. The NBLC should be seen as part of the process of trying to build agreement between the activists of all these separate movements.

The concept of power is useful in trying to explain what is common behind the various struggles of these movements. In each case, these movements are struggling against the inequality of power and decision-making over a particular sphere of social life that is important to them.

They seek to act both as a means of consciousness-raising for the powerless, and as a means of increasing the power of those groups to intervene in decision-making in their sphere of interest.

There are real possibilities for links between these movements, particularly in the campaigns they launch in the public sphere (political/industrial). This is because it is usually the case that it is the same small minority group in society who are the current decision makers over the allocation of material and human resources against whom the movements of struggle want to intervene.

There are, however, significant differences between these movements which should not be glossed over, but instead should be analysed and taken into account in developing strategies for unity.

Differences in values/methods/organisation/strategy and tactics

It is probably not too much of a simplification to distinguish between the values and methods of the older movements of struggle – the unions, social democratic and socialist/communist parties, formed in the late 19th century, basically to confront the power inequalities of class – and the newer movements of the twentieth century (mostly post 1960s), particularly those which started in the private arena of the family and social life around the power inequalities of gender and race.

A quick summary of the pre-1960s values and methods would include the following: solidarity; collectivism; the individual as subordinate to the collective; the role of the vanguard in party and union; aim – liquidate capitalist class, smash the state; strategy – oppositionism, workerism; national-level action (centralisation, statism).

Post-1960s, the values and methods seem to include the following: The importance of individual/local actions and solutions (decentralisation; extension into private sphere – “the personal is political”; consciousness-raising; non-hierarchical structures of organisation; prefigurative actions (ie. building organisations and lifestyles that pre-figure the “ideal” equal society that is the goal); strategy – empowerment of the powerless; celebration of diversity (ecology – in the natural and also the human environment).

There is probably a material basis for picking the 1960s as a dividing line which produced such differences in values and methods. The level of affluence reached by working people in the post-war boom, the absence of basic wants, was a precondition for struggle around “extra” demands that were not a matter of survival but of quality
of life.

In my view the post-1960s values and methods have generally been more effective (in Australia, at least) in advancing the cause of the movements that have adopted them, than the pre-1960s values and methods.

Causal differences

Another key difference between the struggles around class power, and the struggles around gender and race power, relates to the causes of these power differentials in society.

Gender and race differences have a physical basis in the biological diversity which is a principle of life on this planet.

Centuries of human culture and conditioning have certainly overlaid these differences with roles and stereotypes which seek to justify the power of a particular sex or sexual preference or race over the other/s. However, the solution to these power differentials does not require the elimination of the other sex or race/s.

The elimination of gender and race power differences can be achieved in a society with a culture of tolerance and acceptance of diversity. However, class differences are not differences that should be tolerated but ones that should be eliminated.

The key difference lies in the fact that there is no physical basis for class power differences. They are entirely human constructs.

The point to be taken from this analysis is that there are essential differences between the movements around class power, and those around gender and race power. Each is equally legitimate in its own sphere.

There should be no question of allocating a priority of struggle, saying that class struggle is more important than race or gender struggle, or vice versa. What can be said is that each struggle, on its own, is insufficient to build a socialist Australia.

The building of socialism

A respect for, and understanding of, each of the movements, their values, aspirations and achievements, should precede the building of alliances towards socialist renewal in Australia.

The next step will be to try and redefine a collective vision of what the “good society” will look like, which we are all of us interested in building.

The strength of the movement for a socialist Australia will lie in a more conscious attempt to develop methods of organisation and practice that are prefigurative of the good society – those described above as the post-1960s values. These emphasise, above all, the strong relationship between personal (individual) liberation and co-operative tolerant action.

Let us find the way to get across to all Australians that our goal is relevant to them. Marx’s characterisation of communist society as one where “the free development of each [individual] is the condition of the free development of all” is still, to me, one of the most useful descriptions of the “good society” I would like to live in.

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