Beyond Voting: The Left and the 2022 Elections

By Max Lane

Voting early in the 2022 Federal Election. Photographer: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Since at least 1983, the Marxist left in Australia, and certainly the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) until its demise in 2007 and then the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), argued that there was very little difference between the Liberal (and National) Party (LNP) and the Australian Labor Party (ALP). Both were seen as supporters of capitalism, including during its current neoliberal period. Any differences were seen as being of degree only, and often dependent on conjunctural opportunism. One way this was expressed was in the phrase that it was a contest between “tweedled-in” and “tweedled-out”.

The class collaborationist character of the ALP was noted as early as 1913 by Lenin, writing from Poland. He described the ALP as a bourgeois liberal party. During its history, the ‘liberal’ side of this characteristic has been more or less weak. When it was stronger, it was primarily articulated by the party’s left wing as well as the left-wing of the trade unions. The ALP Left Faction, before 1983, was the more consistent advocate within the party of a welfare state as well as social reforms. The anomaly was in the early 1970s when a figure not associated with the Left, Gough Whitlam, became an advocate for a whole gamut of social reforms and a major change in international policy (withdrawal from the Vietnam War). These reforms were, of course supported by the ALP Left.

This all occurred as a part of the general youth radicalisation that had taken place during the 1960s, associated with the mass opposition to the Vietnam War and the rise of the women’s liberation movement among other manifestations of radicalisation. This surge of progressive liberalism (as it manifested inside the ALP) remained securely within the framework of bourgeois liberalism. There was no questioning of the fundamentals of the operation of capitalism in Australia, although capitalists themselves often resented the social change and expenditures associated with it. At the same time also, even as the ALP government removed troops from Vietnam and recognised the Peoples Republic of China, it also gave the green light to Suharto’s invasion of East Timor, motivated by both a fear of a left-wing East Timor and the conviction that access to Timor’s oil and gas would be easier via Suharto than a left-wing Timorese government.

Gough Whitlam was no doubt Australia’s greatest social liberal reformer. Yet that liberal reform, even at its most progressive, was still firmly within the bourgeois liberalism that Lenin spoke about. In any case, the 1975 recession meant that this more socially liberal government had to go as there was necessity, from the capitalist’s classes perspective, to prepare the country for austerity. By 1983, after eight years of vulgar austerity under Malcolm Fraser’s Liberal Government, the most class collaborationist ALP leadership under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, had taken over the Party and won government by promising to impose maximum wage rises of no more than official inflation.

This policy of a Prices and Incomes Accord promised to deliver guaranteed wage rises – though it never delivered. Yet the promise, which was tied to support for the ALP government as a way of keeping the LNP out, was highly successful in demobilising trade union activity and industrial action. This was coupled with frontal attacks on the most militant unions who refused to give up industrial actions – the Builders Labourers Federation and the Australian Federation of Air Pilots were both crushed. The runaway success of the ALP’s Accord – from the point of view of managing capitalism – was that it resulted in the largest transfer in the share of national wealth from wages to profits in Australian history. Further, the marginalisation of union industrial action meant unions were set on a path towards steady loss of membership over the next 40 years. The ALP also lost members, starting with its left-wing members.

It was in this period after 1983, that the ‘tweedle-in vs tweedled-out” perspective on the Left became very widespread. Beyond the Marxist and socialist left it had some resonance, but many amongst the intelligentsia, commentators and the public still saw the ALP as having a less pro-capitalist or pro-neoliberal agenda, however slight.

In this 2022 federal election, the “tweedled-in and tweedled-out” perspective has entered mainstream discussion through the commentary of journalists such as Laura Tingle. Tingle expressed this sentiment most strongly in her article: Election campaign is a game of spot the difference – and without ideas, dog whistles take over. Tingle’s criticism is not from the Left but from a bourgeois liberal framework. In summing up what she thought was missing from political debate and what people wanted to hear about, she wrote,

“…they wanted to know what the two parties were doing about housing affordability, and nurses in aged care, and the NDIS, and electric batteries and vehicles, and what plans there were for dealing with disasters, and funding recovery from them, in the future.

In other words, they just wanted governments to do things. And to do them competently.”

Tingle, Laura; Election campaign is a game of spot the difference – and without ideas, dog whistles take over; Sat 23 Apr 2022; ABC News

The other manifestation of the deepening of the tweedled-in vs tweedled-out phenomenon has been the steady change in political reporting over the last 40 years. The end of a contrast between bourgeois conservatism and bourgeois liberalism either within the Liberal Party or between the Liberal Party and the ALP has deprived all journalism (that has no fundamental questions about the status quo of any issues) of substance to analyse. Steadily, political reporting has adopted the approach of sports reporting, with the stories being about tactical moves and counter-moves. The questions of concern become who has fumbled the ball or kicked an own goal; who has made a clever pass and scored a try; who has the best captain or coach; which club has biggest budget; who has some media worthy personalities or damaging ones; who is doing best with branding.

The ALP in this election has some specific policies that it using to sell itself as better than the Liberals. These include some improvements in Aged Care services, in principal support for a minimum wage rise, electric car charging systems and a few others as well as a commitment in principle to more rapidly lower carbon emissions. The emphasis, however, is that this all must be done, indeed that all policy must be formulated, in collaboration with business. Whatever improvements are being offered, they are conceived as having no or minimum impact of the distribution of wealth between capital and labour.

The ALP and the Liberals are not the only political players having a visible impact on national politics. In particular, the Greens remain a high-profile party, whose policies are consistent with a left-of-centre bourgeois liberal perspective – similar to that which one might of seen inside the ALP before 1975 but with the contemporary special emphasis on climate change and the environment. On the right, One Nation, and, if only because of its advertising budget, Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party attract comment and attention and may have impacts on election day given the operations of the electoral system for the House of Representatives today.

HOW SHOULD THE LEFT ACT?

In this context of 2 major parties both supporting neoliberal capitalism, how is the Left acting and how should it act? No matter that we are facing a reality where the choice is between two pro-capitalist parties, the question of who governs a country is always important no matter how small the differences may be. It is always a real question: which will be the best or worse for the working class, that is the vast mass of the population?

There are perhaps two key aspects to this question. First, if in government, whose policies, if implemented, will provide benefits to working people or make things worse. It is most likely that both parties will contribute to making things worse as they both support a system that is increasingly concentrating wealth in the hands of the already wealthy. On the basis of stated policies, it can also be noted that some of the policies of the ALP may benefit some elements in the working class, for example, people living in under-staffed Aged Care homes. No matter how few such people may benefit, even if for a while, it is worth voting in a way that supports that happening, rather than the opposite. This is an argument for voting in the ALP to replace the LNP.

Apart from policies, there are also more general political considerations. The LNP has been in power for 9 years and that 9 years has seen a consolidation of the right, including the religious right, inside the LNP, even if rightist eccentrics have chosen to leave the LNP. This process has, however, also provoked instability inside the LNP as in the NSW Liberals and has given rise to socially liberal “Liberals”, often with environmental concerns, to challenge the Liberal Party candidates, especially in prosperous seats. These so-called TEAL Liberals are often no less neoliberal than LNP politicians on core economic policies. A firm defeat for the kind of socially reactionary, and climate denialist politics represented by Scott Morrison will mostly sow more chaos among the ranks of the LNP which would not be a bad thing. Again, this is another argument for voting in an ALP government and voting out the LNP.

While the question of who governs is usually the central question posed by elections, it is not the only question. An increase in the vote for any parties or candidates that would reflect a desire for greater change than that represented by the ALP would also be a positive. Again, there are two aspects to this. First, if there was, for example, an increased representation for the Greens in the Senate or House of Representatives, there may be advantages for those campaigning in the country in applying pressure to constrain slightly the worse policies of any government – although this is not guaranteed. The Greens purely parliamentary strategy means they are excessively reliant on manoeuvre and media tactics, which can mean unnecessary compromises. Still, on the balance or probabilities, the more representatives of the Greens in parliament, the greater the chance to constrain at least some pro-neoliberal policies. This is an argument for voting Green ahead of Labor, while preferencing Labor ahead of the Liberals and the rest of the Right.

There are also candidates standing who are to the Left of the Greens. Notably there are candidates from the Victorian Socialists (VS) and the Socialist Alliance (SA). The political platforms of these two parties are definitely to the Left of the Greens, with a more comprehensive set of policies aimed at the redistribution of wealth – although the NSW Greens platform is strong in this sense also. VS and SA also more frequently stress the necessity for ongoing extra-parliamentary campaigning. They also consistently state that they stand for an eventual change from capitalism to socialism, which the Greens do not do.

The voting into the Senate, for example, of one of these candidates, many of whom have records of social movement activism, would also increase the possibility of slightly constraining neoliberal policies, if they spoke out as well as helped further strengthen extra-parliamentary campaigns.

Beyond the significance of having Green or Socialist MPs in the parliament, a growing vote for these parties can strengthen the legitimacy and self-confidence of everybody who is developing stronger critiques of the status quo from the point of view of social justice and economic equality, habitat protection and general issues of humanity.

For all these reasons, if people are in a position to vote, voting for a Socialist candidate where one exists, or Greens, before Labor but preferencing Labor always before the Liberals and the Right is worth doing.

BEYOND VOTING: THE LEFT AND ELECTIONS

Voting, or even helping a party campaign for votes, is basically a very individual response to the current objective electoral situation that we face. As described above, the most that can be hoped for is a neoliberal capitalist government that may face some minor constraints on its actions and, perhaps, in the best-case scenario, a situation where social movements have a marginal voice in parliament. Any improvement, no matter how slight, is worth seeking to achieve as long as there are no negative consequences of voting or advocating a vote.

Sometimes it is argued that by advocating a vote, even when accompanied by all kinds of qualifications, illusions that elections can change things are being strengthened. First, in the current objective situation, I doubt whether such illusions remain strong among the working class, at least in so far as expecting any substantial, even if moderate change. Cynicism and contempt for the country’s bourgeois politicians is what dominates. There are few illusions that, for example, ALP politicians are qualitatively different or better.

Second, and of crucial importance, is that we cannot take a position that what the Left says, for example, in the way we all qualify our advocacy for voting or even standing candidates in elections, is meaningless. While the Left remains very small and for that reason is capable primarily only of propaganda, of patiently explaining its viewpoint, what we write and say, and what our protest actions stand for, are indeed what we are able to do and must do to the best of our ability.

There are, however, major limitations to the campaigns of parties such as the VS and SA, which stem from the nature of their organisation (in the case of VS that is Socialist Alternative) and their politics. In practice, the VS and SA campaigns are campaigns to secure the votes of people who agree with their election platforms, all of which are strong social democratic platforms – although with the addendum of stated support also for eventual socialism.

All of the demands put forward by the VS and SA, while a challenge for current capitalism, are theoretically possible under capitalism, including taxing billionaires. This, in and of itself, is not a criticism of either VS or SA. Any Left organisation, even a revolutionary organisation, standing candidates in an environment characterised by the most minimal, close to zero, class struggle and the ideological hegemony of austerity-ism will be constrained in its election propaganda if it wants any votes.

But is there a way to participate in elections and do more than gather the votes from those who support a stronger social democratic, redistributionist politics? At a micro-level, one argument, which we also adopted in the DSP, was that by waging such a campaign where both our electoral platform as well as our other revolutionary propaganda was available, we may win a few recruits – and perhaps, maybe we did. The DSP did publish a large amount of material, much more than either SA or VS, which was always available. Another argument was that it was a proclamation of our existence on the Left, which was and is a valid argument.

However, I think this question needs to be thought through more, although given the tiny size of the organised far left, some humility is necessary to frame our ambitions. A starting point for thinking about this must be reaffirming what the basic task of the Left must be at this point in time. This must involve convincing more and more people of a perspective that is more radical (going to the roots of the matter) than that which they hold at the moment. The point is not only to gather people on the basis of their current consciousness, originating out of their discontent spontaneously in an environment where the ruling class’s ideas dominate. The point is to help the process of transforming consciousness, winning people to the idea of revolution and to a scientific approach to working out how to get there.

In the current situation, I doubt that any small revolutionary group would find in an election campaign the potential to do that, beyond winning authority through the example of effort and thus winning a hearing from some later. But still, seeking votes on the basis of a basically social democratic platform, even if under the name socialism and adding on the advocacy of socialism, falls short of what should be tried for. Winning people to revolution and socialism must go beyond the moral rejection of the injustices, the catastrophes, and all the other filth promised by capitalism. A politics of moral indignation, no matter how angry, militant and consistent nor how slickly packaged, cannot be enough. Scientific socialism wasn’t called that for nothing. The Left needs to have an approach of deep study combined with organisation and action.

I mentioned briefly the plethora of publications always made available by the DSP. This was a reflection of the party’s commitment to intellectual work, or literary work, as Lenin called it. This literary work, however, was not plucked out of the air. The topics and issues discussed, which members were armed with, reflected the needs of our work in intervening in ongoing political processes (campaigns), or initiating them. Where neither ourselves nor anybody else had the resources for an on-the-ground campaign around specific issues, we attempted to sustain a campaign in the pages of our newspaper.

These interventions required Marxist analysis of balance of forces, tactics, policy critiques, explanation of political developments, ideological criticism and many other issues. A weekly newspaper, journal and a myriad of pamphlets came out of all of this, as well as a wealth of material published internally. This was all needed within movements and campaigns not as part of determining a posture, but so that our own cadre understood the issues from a Marxist perspective and thus were in the best position to explain this and win people through political education. What are the demands the climate change movement should advocate and how should they be explained while active in an ongoing way to build the movement? These kinds of questions apply across the board in all areas of work, including international work. Crucially also, this analytical work on strategies and policies evolving from campaigns also enriches the general work of being able to explain how imperialist capitalism itself works. How does the system which has created the division between bourgeois and proletariat, the 1% and the 99%, actually work? What are the levers, cogs, source of energy that keeps the whole system going? All this knowledge is needed if the system is to be either dismantled or “blown up”. Being convinced that it is a rotten system which creates a rotten ruling class is not enough. The system also creates a working class whose ideas are dominated by those of the ruling class. Once again, the most serious of efforts to explain things is crucial work for a cadre party.

The intellectual work was integrated with campaign intervention, initiation or sustaining work. Without the latter, the former doesn’t happen. Without the former, the ability to advance consciousness through education can’t happen. This praxis provides the foundation for all political work. Gathering people (and votes) on the basis of their present consciousness, especially without ongoing (as distinct from occasional) movement intervention or movement propaganda activity, even if having methods to preserve their anger, will fail. When this serious intellectual work is done together with ongoing intervention work, participation in election campaigns will have that little extra effectiveness. Of course, while parties are small, as was the DSP, then we need to be modest in making claims about successes. But the training of cadre meant there was an inbuilt orientation to be able to think in ways not only to agitate people’s anger to militant action but also to deepen understanding of what needs to be done.

THE 2022 ELECTIONS AND THE SPECIFIC CHALLENGE OF POLITICS IN AN IMPERIALIST COUNTRY

Issues of social justice and economic equality – wages, pensions, housing; global warming and environmental destruction, including of river systems, coral reefs, and other ecosystems; issues of human justice, the plight of asylum seekers and refugees are big questions for any progressive movement to face. And so is war. In this election, a central figure in the LNP government, Minister for Defence, Peter Dutton, has repeatedly warned of the need to “prepare for war with China.” A huge arrogant brouhaha has arisen when the Solomon Islands government dared sign a security agreement with China. Both the ALP and LNP, and now most of the media, operate within a framework which accepts or asserts that China is an enemy. While not quite as central as China, Russia also now is classified as an enemy country.

Explaining the place of Australia in the imperialist world structure must be a fundamental task of progressives in Australia. Australia is a member – albeit a junior member – of the small club of countries that have dominated the world economy since the beginning of the 20th century. The United States is the dominant state and capitalist class among this small club. Even 120 years later wealth continues to concentrate in this club with no major new members. This is a primary division of the world between the rich members of the imperialist club who maintain, often by force, a structure whereby they continue to extract wealth from of the rest of the world – preventing the rest of the world from ever “catching up”. The gap just gets wider.

Australia’s membership of this club brings with it many consequences, both economic and political. Its capitalist class shares in the super-profits that the club members extract from the rest of the world, which also allows a bigger budget within Australia for buying social peace. These super-profits have also helped finance the constant improvement of the means of production, far ahead of the rest of the world, meaning to at least some extent, the whole society reaps benefits from big leaps in labour productivity.

Politically, one driving force in domestic politics has always been the prevention of any sense of solidarity the peoples of the rest of the world and indeed the preservation of a more-or-less hostile or suspicious attitude among the Australian people towards the people in these countries.. Since World War 2, almost all of Australia’s overseas military deployments have been to wars against governments or movements of the Global South. Since WW2 there has been the “Yellow Peril” and “Red Scare” of “dominoes” falling down through South-east Asia, the “threat from the North” and more recently the talk of the threat from the Middle East. Now they fear, the Pacific Islands might decide to go their own way. This need to cultivate such fear and suspicion also lies behind the otherwise irrational racist scaremongering against refugees and asylum seekers all coming from countries of the “other”, i.e. countries that are not members of the Club.

The reality is that none of the countries outside the imperial club are enemies or threats, including neither the Chinese nation nor government, nor the Russian nation or government. Of course, not being a member of the Club does not mean that governments ruling countries outside the club are necessarily any more on the side of common people than governments in the imperialist countries – although at different times, most of these countries strive to raise themselves above the misery that European, American and Japanese colonialism left them in.

Inside their countries, class tensions between capitalist and proletarians and peasants do also determine politics, but so too does the tension between these countries, as nations, and the non-stop exploitation they face from the imperialist club members. At times, they will naturally voice their resentment at this exploitation, bristle at the military pressure they are put under and be fed up with racist view of them as “shit hole” countries or countries whose people will easily throw their children into the ocean just to get into Australia. When there is war, they will be depicted as carrying out every kind of horror in contrast with the alleged civilised behaviour and accurate targeting of the imperialist club.

Explaining this structure and Australia’s place in it, that the nations and also the governments of those countries who are not imperialist club members are NOT threats or enemies, is a task which progressives must see as extremely important. This is the case even when the governments of countries outside the club are undemocratic: that might put them in contradiction with their own people (and in these cases they often become the friends of imperialist governments), but it does not make them our enemies – and certainly their peoples are not.

The shared interests of working people of imperialist countries as well as the rest of the world and the need for solidarity between us all must be a fact which we can convince more and more people is true.

Is this election, NO WAR ON CHINA! COOPERATION NOT ENMITY! should be central messages.

Any strategy for building a Left in Australia that ignores this question of Australia’s membership of the little imperialist club of exploiting countries will be inadequate. There are many other things that need to be explained of course, but the nature of Australia’s imperialist location is foundational.

**

RED ANT is still a very small group. Perhaps it can be called a new “start-up”. Our resources are too limited to consider campaigning in the election. For the moment, we are focused on producing our website Red-Ant.org and associated YouTube channel as well as a series of publications that will be available for purchase via our website or at our stalls or at actions. But we want to grow. We are reaching out to find people who are on the same wavelength as us, as the ideas presented on Red-Ant.org.  If you are one of these people and want to help us build something or support those directly involved – and we have grown a little since we started – please contact us and we can have a chat, either face-to-face or over zoom, depending where you are.

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