Report Back from the Socialism Conference in Sydney

As usual, the national gathering held annually by Socialist Alternative in Australia featured packed sessions, lively discussions, and lots of clarity on politics at home and abroad, from Indigenous struggle to escalating imperialist conflict with China.

by | Aug 28, 2023

Earlier this month, I attended Socialist Alternative’s Socialism conference in Sydney. For readers outside Australia, I’m referring to the Australian Trotskyist organization (which was a cousin of sorts to the ISO in the US before the latter disbanded), and not the much more compromised Socialist Alternative in the US. Socialist Alternative in Australia has existed in its current form since 1995 (after a split with, confusingly, another ISO) and is a national organization with hundreds of members. It has branches in a number of major Australian cities, and others on university campuses; and publishes the internationally regarded Red Flag newspaper.

Billed as “Sydney’s largest conference of left-wing ideas,” the Socialism conference takes place on the University of Sydney campus every August. It’s the organization’s second-biggest annual conference, after the Marxism conference in Melbourne every Easter weekend. Both conferences bring hundreds of attendees.

Socialism is a conference dear to my heart. I first attended in 2016, during that insane year of Brexit and the rise of Trumpism. The ideas I heard at the conference were a great help in clarifying my outlook on the world situation, and were instrumental in pushing me towards Marxism and Trotskyism.

I could only attend the three-day conference for one day this year — Saturday, the first full day of the conference. I attended three very well-attended talks and a book launch, and here’s my report from those four sessions.

Can we change the world without violence?

This is not something I needed my mind changed about, but I chose this as my first session of the day because speaker Kerri Parke always brings something extra (as she did recently in her brilliant online talk for Denver Communists on allyship versus solidarity).

True to form, this was a great overview of the topic, counterposing the grinding daily violence of the capitalist system, which most people accept, with the violence of protest and resistance, which we’re taught to abhor.

Parke’s analysis of Mahatma Gandhi’s problematic politics was a pivotal section of her talk. Gandhi’s ideas are important to dissect because they continue to hold sway as an entry-point to activism for many young people in the process of radicalizing. As Parke argued, nonviolence suited Gandhi not only as an abstract moral principle, but more practically because he didn’t actually want to overthrow capitalism, he wanted to “harness it to our side.”

Parke established a basic principle right off the bat: socialists always support the violence of the oppressed in defending themselves and resisting the system “in whatever way they see fit,” from Minneapolis to Palestine to France, where a massive protest movement broke out earlier this year in response to the brutal police murder of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk. Illustrating the baked-in violence of the police and the state, Parke cited language used by the French police: they described rioters as “vermin” and “savage” and vowed to “impose calm” on them.

Parke also pointed out how much more the police and government authorities are concerned about property than they are about the lives of the oppressed — a plain indicator of the priorities of capitalist society. She quoted Black Lives Matter activist Alicia Garza on the bourgeois media’s overweening concern for looted and burned stores compared to the lives of Black people: “Target will reopen. The stores will reopen. That is assured. What is not assured is our safety and real justice.”

Parke’s analysis of Mahatma Gandhi’s problematic politics was a pivotal section of her talk. Gandhi’s ideas are important to dissect because they continue to hold sway as an entry-point to activism for many young people in the process of radicalizing. As Parke argued, nonviolence suited Gandhi not only as an abstract moral principle, but more practically because he didn’t actually want to overthrow capitalism, he wanted to “harness it to our side.” He opposed strike activity on principle (he referred to political strikes as “unruly and disturbing”) and was very much at odds with socialists and other revolutionaries in the independence movement. Though it’s been years since I’ve considered Gandhi any kind of role model, I was surprised to learn of the degree of his enmity towards Bolshevism, which, like many others in bourgeois society around the world at the time, he considered a threat.

Parke compared and contrasted Gandhi’s views with those of that other icon of activism, Martin Luther King, Jr. — whose practice of nonviolent resistance was heavily influenced by Gandhi. As we are reminded every January 15th, King’s civil disobedience is held up by the establishment as the ideal of political action — but in light of the perpetual violence of the system, it’s fairly obvious why the ruling class would want to confine any resistance to nonviolence.

King’s positions on nonviolence are more complex than usually presented in schoolbooks. As Parke argued, nonviolence may have been the best strategy for the Jim Crow South, when any violence on the part of the movement would have resulted in massive, horrific bloodshed in return, but King’s views evolved towards the end of his life. Around the same time that he began to openly criticize the US government (“the greatest purveyor of violence in the world”) for its bloody war in Vietnam, and even began to question capitalism itself, he developed sympathy for Black urban rioters. After years of civil disobedience, the Civil Rights movement continued to face intractable stonewalling from state governments, police brutality, and white supremacist terrorism, and nonviolence began to lose its appeal for Black Americans. King was in tune with this when he described riots as “the language of the unheard.”

Moving on to discuss the utility of violence for revolutionaries, Parke went on to cite Leon Trotsky’s crucial 1911 essay, “Why Marxists Oppose Individual Terrorism”:

In our eyes, individual terror is inadmissible precisely because it belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness, reconciles them to their powerlessness, and turns their eyes and hopes towards a great avenger and liberator who some day will come and accomplish his mission. The anarchist prophets of the ‘propaganda of the deed’ can argue all they want about the elevating and stimulating influence of terrorist acts on the masses. Theoretical considerations and political experience prove otherwise. The more ‘effective’ the terrorist acts, the greater their impact, the more they reduce the interest of the masses in self-organization and self-education.

In other words, violence should be a political question, not a moral one.

Parke also cited postcolonial theorist Frantz Fanon’s belief that violence is good because it is a way for the oppressed to “cleanse the individual from feelings of inferiority.” But she criticized Fanon for elevating violence to a moral principle and therefore diluting the question of whether it’s political or strategic.

More important than revolutionary strategy concerning violence is the task of organizing the working class. Before we can talk about what kind of violence is justified by the movement and what isn’t, we have to have a mass movement strong enough to challenge the power of the system. We don’t wait for avenging liberators; we don’t convince ourselves that small bands of guerillas can lead a revolution. We have to do this together.

As Parke reminded us, revolutions are often relatively peaceful (example: Russian soldiers throwing down their arms because they couldn’t bring themselves to shoot at women protesters during the February Revolution), but counterrevolutions are never peaceful. One of these days the revolutionary movement will face the question of how to directly fight counterrevolution. Until then our task is building cadre and organizing the working class.

Parke’s thesis can be summarized by her opening statement: “If you want a world without violence, you have to commit to overthrowing the system — which will take violence.”

And we do want a world without violence. As someone pointed out in the discussion after the talk, abhorring violence is a good place to start from as a revolutionary. We are by all means weary of the constant violence of our brutal, competitive, warmongering society — this is the very reason we want to overthrow it — and we certainly don’t fetishize violence as our enemies including cops and fascists do. But neither can we hold up nonviolence as a moral principle simply because it “feels nice.”

It’s a small thing but it made me so happy that Parke included a clip from the “One way out!” prison-revolt scene in the Star Wars series Andor to illustrate her talk. It was a fun but incisive way to hammer the point home, and this is exactly why I always seek out her talks.

The ALP in government: Was there ever a Labor golden age?

For this talk on the history of the Australian Labor Party, speaker Mick Armstrong turned the question in the title into a socialist dad joke: in case you want to save time… the answer is no.

I attended this for three reasons: the deep hatred for Labor I’ve cultivated in my 15 years living here; the fact that since I’m not from here I missed out on high-school civics and I only know the broad strokes of this history (mostly from reading Red Flag); and I always try to catch talks by Armstrong, one of Socialist Alternative’s founding members, and an important theorist for Firebrand as an organization (he wrote the pamphlet From Little Things Big Things Grow, a powerful argument for the value of small propaganda groups in building revolutionary parties).

Armstrong was ace as usual in running down the history of the Labor party since their origins in the militant union movement of the 1880s, when socialist ideas were very popular in Australia (some early Labor leaders were actual Marxists). Labor was the first reformist labor party in the world to win government (in 1904), which I didn’t know. Armstrong’s main theme was that starting in those early days and ever since, Labor has sought to serve capital, not threaten it. Since it had the support of many workers (and to some degree still does, though it’s by no means a mass party anymore), its project has always been to corral the workers’ movement into electoralism instead of strikes and protests.

It’s never been easy for Labor to find the right balance, and they often go too far in their subservience to capital and end up alienating workers. A key example was their campaign for the draft during World War I, which led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Australian workers and helped ignite a militant workers’ movement in the wake of the war comparable to the revolutionary movements in Europe at that time. At such times, Labor is often subsequently bounced out of office by voters, often for long periods.

Never the preferred party of the ruling class, Labor are still considered useful at different times for their ability to contain militance, and because their reforms are seen as helping to modernize capitalism. All of this may sound familiar to American readers; indeed the ALP and the Democratic Party have been characterized by similar attitudes and strategies over the years.

Even the Gough Whitlam government of the early 1970s, which was a time of rapid reform (free higher education, the abolition of the death penalty, legal aid, extensive urban and transport renewal) can’t be considered a golden age, however venerated it is by many nostalgic left-leaning Australians. Like Franklin Roosevelt in the US, Whitlam’s reforms were really about containing a militant workers’ movement —  for example the Green Bans of the early 1970s, in which militant construction unions regularly engaged in political strikes such as protecting public parks or Aboriginal neighborhoods from development.

The ruling-class backlash to Whitlam’s reforms ultimately resulted in a coup in which he was removed from government by the governor-general on orders of the British crown and in collaboration with the right-wing Liberal Party (here’s a 2015 article about the coup by Armstrong). Whitlam’s status as a political martyr only enhances the hero worship and nostalgia on the center-left — but as Armstrong pointed out, contrary to his image as a great social reformer, at the time of the coup Whitlam was attempting to introduce more austerity. This was a project that future Labor prime ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating would take up in full force as neoliberalism was entrenched in the 1980s and ’90s.

Instead of crediting Whitlam for handing down the reforms, we should credit the movement that fought for them from below — a general principle for any period of reform.

As someone pointed out in the discussion, it says it all about Labor that when they were removed from government in the coup and there were hundreds of thousands of angry workers in the streets ready to shut down the system to defend them (a moment that verged on a revolutionary situation according to Socialist Alternative’s Tom Bramble), it was more important for Whitlam and other Labor leaders to urge the protesters to go home and wait for an election (in which Labor was badly beaten by the Liberals, legitimizing the coup). It was more important for Labor to preserve the system than it was to actually fight to stay in power.

Are we headed to a war with China?

The final talk I attended on Saturday was an excellent one by Chloe Rafferty that shed light on the complex new landscape of multipolar imperialism, a topic I always feel behind on. The room was absolutely packed with well over a hundred attendees, showing the level of urgency many people feel about the world situation.

Rafferty argued that we shouldn’t underestimate China’s economic imperialism, especially in Africa, and that we definitely shouldn’t rule out the horrific possibility of future conflict, even the unthinkable: nuclear conflict. Leftists who argue that capitalists would rather have peace so they can efficiently rake in profits are neglecting the entire history of imperialism. AUKUS signals the deadly seriousness of the ruling class’s designs.

The immediate context of the talk is the recent AUKUS military pact between Australia, the UK and the US, which among other things would result in the construction of Australian nuclear submarines that will be placed within striking range of China. These subs will cost AU $368 billion (roughly US $235 billion) over ten years — the biggest military spend in Australian history, announced during a severe housing and cost-of-living crisis. One of the proposed nuclear sub bases is at Wollongong, a major port south of Sydney, and there’s been a large and stiff resistance movement locally against the base in the past few months that’s gotten a lot of mainstream support.

Rafferty found a good balance between realism and raising the alarm on this escalation of tensions. She first detailed how this new “cold war” is very different from the old one: China and the US still have many economic ties compared to the US and the USSR; China’s military can’t compare to the USSR in the way it challenged US military might globally; and there is as yet nothing on the order of the proxy wars in Afghanistan, Vietnam and elsewhere.

However Rafferty argued that we shouldn’t underestimate China’s economic imperialism, especially in Africa, and that we definitely shouldn’t rule out the horrific possibility of future conflict, even the unthinkable: nuclear conflict. Leftists who argue that capitalists would rather have peace so they can efficiently rake in profits are neglecting the entire history of imperialism. AUKUS signals the deadly seriousness of the ruling class’s designs.

A running theme was that technology is an important factor in all of this. The Biden administration’s efforts to cut ties with or impose tariffs on Chinese tech firms (with euphemisms like “friendshoring” and “de-risking”) are about maintaining military dominance.

Rafferty argued that Australians should be very concerned about all this. While Australia is no mere lapdog of the US as it’s often portrayed on the left — it is in fact a regional imperialist power with its own destructive sphere of influence in the Pacific, including brutal military turnbacks of boat refugees — still, the Australian ruling class sees the US alliance as fundamental to their own interests and there’s no question they will go along with a war.

There is very little support for AUKUS or escalation of conflict with China among Australian workers, so the media has to continually beat the drums and whip up fear. The Sydney Morning Herald recently dedicated an entire week’s front pages to the Chinese “threat” and even made a case for reinstating the draft. In Rafferty’s words, this is all bullshit: China is objectively not a threat to us, especially compared to the massive existential threat of AUKUS and our own ruling class.

The discussion after the talk was very interesting and at times emotional, with many sometimes competing perspectives on the potential for conflict with China. A Chinese man said if there was a war with the US then China has to win or it will be annihilated. A man from Hong Kong talked about Chinese repression of dissent there. A speaker who identified as Uygher said her father had been murdered in a concentration camp — pretty confronting to hear in a meeting and a reminder that these things aren’t abstract. She said leftists in the West don’t focus enough on the human-rights crimes of the Chinese Communist Party. A couple of comrades answered her compassionately, saying the reason we focus more on the crimes of the US or Australia is that the main enemy is at home. We have to be careful when discussing human rights in China so it doesn’t play into the warmongering narrative as it’s liable to do, but of course we have solidarity with the oppressed within Chinese borders and support their struggle — ultimately toward the goal of a worker’s revolution there as well as here.

The thing I was most impressed with in the discussion was that there was no campism expressed at all. Of course I’m not surprised that Socialist Alternative members wouldn’t air campist ideas, but I dreaded random others trying to pipe up with campist bullshit like we’ve dealt with in some Firebrand meetings (and campism is, by the way, at least part of the reason the left doesn’t discuss the Uyghers — whole sectors of the left ignore or tell lies about them out of support for the CCP, which the speaker may have been alluding to but didn’t say explicitly). The only time campism was brought up was in the negative, when a comrade made a general point about how, unlike some leftists, we don’t make the mistake of picking sides in this kind of imperialist conflict. No one pushed back — I was proud of everybody, not to mention relieved.

Book launch for Indigenous Liberation and Socialism by Jordan Humphreys

Socialist Alternative’s publishing wing, Red Flag Books, has just released Indigenous Liberation and Socialism, a new volume by Jordan Humphreys on the long history of solidarity between Aboriginal folks and socialists, especially via the workers’ movement. Saturday’s conference itinerary ended with a book launch at a local bar to celebrate the occasion.

The launch doubled as a talk by Humpreys on the subject. I didn’t take notes at the launch so I don’t have as much to report back, but his presentation was terrific, and included a slideshow with highlights from more than a century of Indigenous struggle.

As it is for his book, the running theme of Humprheys’ talk was that Indigenous resistance has often been at its most acute when it’s involved labor struggle, and that history has been underreported or ignored. For example, in his research Humphreys uncovered a lot of evidence that Aboriginal shearers were integral to the great shearers’ strike of 1891 (one of the militant disputes that led to the formation of the Labor party) whereas some historians have just written them out of that struggle. Humphreys showed us an old photo taken during the shearers’ strike that clearly depicts Aboriginal workers standing with their white comrades during the strike. Despite one dissertation he read flatly stating that no Aboriginal workers took part at all, it only took him about ten minutes to find this photo when he started his research.

(You can read Humphreys’ 2021 article about the shearers’ strike, which ultimately led him to write the book, in Marxist Left Review, Socialist Alternative’s academic journal.)

Humphreys was introduced by Indigenous socialist Oskar Martin, who tied the struggles of the past to the present. Aboriginal land is being pillaged by mining companies, deaths in custody continue unabated, and Indigenous children are right now being taken from their families at a higher rate than during the Stolen Generations in the early to mid-20th century (comparable to the forced removals of Native children in North America). Martin was especially critical of the hypocrisy of the current Labor government under Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in promoting the merely symbolic Voice to Parliament while Labor state governments around the country incarcerate Indigenous children.

(For overseas readers: The Voice to Parliament is a proposal for a special parliamentary office for an Indigenous representative, and will be decided in an upcoming national referendum. Indigenous and progressive critics of the Voice contend that it will be a powerless and tokenistic position backed mainly by Labor that will circumvent the movement for real and material change for Indigenous people, as well as delay the much more urgent campaign for a Treaty. Unfortunately the No vote has been hijacked by the right wing and has become a flashpoint for racism in Australia. Socialist Alternative’s organizational position, reiterated by Martin on Saturday night, is that while the Voice is a hollow and hypocritical proposal, we have to critically support the Yes campaign to counter this racist hysteria; a defeat of Yes would be a disastrous boon to the racist right.)

A final thought: throughout the day I was reminded of what a high level of development Socialist Alternative comrades have. Even the youngest or newest members are very confident and sharp during discussions, so I feel I have to bring my A-game when I overcome my own shyness and intervene. This speaks to having a national organization with hundreds of members, more resources than a local organization might have — especially an excellent weekly newspaper in Red Flag — and lots of veterans to train and encourage them. These are things we should aim for in our own organizations.

All in all it was a good day! I was glad to be able to talk up Firebrand with the several comrades who asked in between sessions. I’m looking forward to having more of Firebrand’s work to show at the next conference in 2024.

photo via Socialist Alternative Sydney

Jim Poe
(he/him) is a member of Firebrand and an at-large member of Denver Communists based in Sydney, Australia. Read more from Jim on his blog.

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