This article first appeared in The Anvil Vol 11 No 2, published 30 April 2022.
On 21 May, voters in Australia will choose which government will oversee exploitation and oppression of the working class by the capitalists for the next three years. We won’t be able to vote for a free society, one where people live lives of equality and co-operation, where racism, sexism, homophobia and all the other toxic phenomena of capitalism don’t exist and where we live in harmony with our environment. Even if the High Court hadn’t ruled in 1948 that socialism was precluded by Section 92 of the Constitution, Parliament isn’t a viable means of creating that society.
The current crisis
This doesn’t mean nothing important is going on, though. Most importantly, the world is rapidly running out of time to prevent runaway climate change, which could destroy industrial civilisation and kill at least 80% of the planet’s human population. In addition, the rich are getting phenomenally richer while living standards for the working class go backwards; increasing conflict between the US and China is bringing war closer; State racism continues to torture refugees and lead to horrific Aboriginal deaths in custody; and the political Right are stoking culture wars, providing the perfect environment for the rise of Fascism. The capitalist system is sick and shows no signs of curing itself. So what does the election offer for addressing this?
The major parties
The incumbent government, a coalition of the Liberal and National Parties, is the representative of the capitalist classes. It is the enemy of the working class and its organisations. The coalition has spent 20 of the past 26 years in power so, as far as any government can be held responsible for the mess we’re in, they’re it. It should also be noted that, because of their close links to Big Business, the Coalition parties defend the interests of existing corporations. This is the source of their resistance to acting on climate change. Both parties need to be wiped from the face of the Earth.
The Labor Party is the political representative of the union bureaucracy. It exists to negotiate a compromise between labour and capital and the terms on which it can do that depend on the balance of power in the wider society. A by-product of this is that Labor is usually more capable than the Liberals of acting in the interests of the system as a whole when existing corporations are acting destructively. With the unions shackled by anti-worker laws and eviscerated by 40 years of economic “reforms”, the best Labor can offer is a few crumbs from the tables of the rich. In this election, Labor is using the “small target” strategy. It emphasises complete agreement with the Liberals on most issues and tries to keep political debate confined to a handful of topics on which the leaders think they have the advantage. Labor is promising very little reform and will, if elected, deliver less.
Minor capitalist parties
The most significant of the minor capitalist parties is The Greens. Though their policies are better than Labor’s in most areas, they suffer from a fundamental problem: they have the illusion that a just and sustainable capitalism can exist. But a sustainable society will require sweeping away so much of the existing capitalist class that very little would remain, so we could expect their virtually unanimous opposition. And, even in a fantasy world where a just capitalism could be created, its ordinary operations would immediately start generating injustice and inequality anew.
There is a range of single issue parties, each of them founded on the assumption that, apart from their own pet issue, everything else in this society is at least tolerable. This time round, there is a wave of “climate independents”. They are basically Liberals who realise how insane the current Liberal Party is being by defending fossil fuel corporations and risking the future of humanity. To the extent that they’re serious about actually tackling climate change, they’ll run into the same road block as The Greens.
Finally, there are the Right wing nut jobs who have been proliferating in recent years. They are the toxic by-product of the manifest inability of the major parties, over decades, to deliver a decent life for people in Australia. Since they won’t blame the capitalist system, they find refuge in reactionary prejudices, crackpot schemes and, increasingly, in conspiracy theories that will lead them to anti-Semitism and Fascism if they go down that road far enough. The good news is that, for now, they hate each other almost as much as they hate their enemies on the “woke Left”.
The largest effort being made by groups which call themselves Socialists is the campaign run by the Victorian Socialists. They are running in eleven lower house electorates in Victoria and for the Senate. A smaller campaign is being run by the Socialist Alliance in five electorates across Australia and for the Senate in three States. We haven’t been able to find any other Socialists who are running for seats in the lower house.
So what about these Socialists, then? They’re against the capitalist system that’s causing all our troubles, so that’s a start. They oppose exploitation and oppression, stand up for all the good causes and realise that stopping climate change requires getting rid of capitalism. So they get more points in their favour. Unfortunately, there’s no Parliamentary road to Socialism. Nor is there a parliamentary road right now to significant reforms, as these have only ever been conceded when forced by a militant working class movement outside of parliament. The experience of 150 years across the world proves that Socialists don’t conquer Parliament, but instead Parliament conquers Socialists. The closer they get to power, the more pressure they are under to ditch Socialism. And ditch it they do. We can only get rid of capitalism through the working class organising in the workplace and making a revolution. Not only is that the only way to beat the capitalists, but it’s also the only way for the working class to rid itself of all the reactionary prejudices which the capitalists use to divide us.
Many Socialists who consider themselves revolutionaries agree with us on the above but still see a point to running in elections. The Melbourne Anarchist Communist Group is prepared to concede that it is possible to enter a capitalist Parliament on a principled basis. You need to advocate Socialism and oppose capitalism; support working class struggles; oppose all oppression and exploitation; and refuse confidence to all capitalist governments. Crucially, because Socialists running for Parliament implicitly create the illusion that it can be achieved through Parliament, principled Socialists need to explain that this is not the case and we still need a revolution.
The MACG’s problem with this is that it’s not worth the effort. It also engages workers as ‘voters’ deferring to candidates, rather than as individuals capable of exercising power where they are exploited and dominated. The time and resources required to get elected would be far better put into building working class struggles at the grassroots. Recruit people to your union and organise against the boss. Fight against police violence. Organise tenants against their landlords. Struggle against sexism, heterosexism and transphobia. Organise solidarity for Indigenous struggles. And so forth. The immense effort these Socialists are putting into this election campaign would get much better results if put into grassroots struggle.
We don’t support running in elections or campaigning for them, but some Socialists are wasting their resources doing just that. Because none of them are in any danger of being elected this time around, the MACG considers that it’s possible to give them a principled vote (though it would be different if any might win – they would have to pass the test above). Such a vote is symbolic: you’re putting up your hand for Socialism and against capitalism. It’s a small gesture which you can make without compromising yourself. But we still think it was a mistake for honest Socialists to run.