Do socialists have a hidden agenda?

3 July 2024
Anneke Demanuele

“The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution.” This was how Marx and Engels closed the Communist Manifesto, the central text of the socialist movement. Socialists and communists will be the first to tell you that to solve issues like the climate crisis, the genocide in Palestine or the constant squeeze on working-class living standards, we’re going to have to end capitalism.

But today among online leftists and campaign activists, there’s an idea going around that socialists have some secret, nefarious hidden agenda. It’s the “progressive” version of the Trumpist conspiracists who dismiss every social justice initiative as the work of George Soros and cultural Marxism.

For these people, political purity is synonymous with concern about only one issue. Making connections between injustices, or drawing attention to the overarching social system within which they occur, is highly suspect. This agenda, of policing the political outlook of others in a movement and valorising a compartmentalised view of society, reflects just as much of an agenda as that of Marxists.

Treating society’s various problems as discrete phenomena reflects a reformist or liberal world view. It implies that the causes of most injustices are bad laws, poor military judgement, ignorance or the individual misuse of corporate or state power. It follows that a change to laws in one area, or the ending of one particular military adventure, or the removal of a particularly bad boss, will solve most social problems. This can be done by sympathetic representatives in parliament, the United Nations, the corporate sector or whatever it is. Some outside pressure might be needed, but not wider social change. Activists aligned to reformist parliamentary parties or NGO lobbying groups are often the ones most hostile to the socialist agenda of connecting discrete atrocities to the broader system.

If changing the system is ruled out, we have to settle for whatever concessions the powerful are willing to make. The climate crisis is a good example of where this logic gets you. Climate NGOs and Greens parties around the world seek to implement climate legislation to curb emissions. This means lobbying politicians, writing reports and launching glossy marketing campaigns. Things that might put centrists and politicians offside are rejected as too radical—such as disrupting corporate mining conferences. This strategy has, sadly, not got us closer to solving the environment crisis.

Or take the example of people who argue we should look to Arab states, Iran or Hezbollah to liberate Palestine. Their agenda is backing one imperialist power over another, which will not lead to liberation, but strengthen a different group of repressive, warmongering capitalist states. Critiquing liberal or reformist approaches to change and offering an alternative are therefore not only legitimate but necessary if we are serious about winning.

Sometimes the way the “socialist agenda” argument comes up is the claim that, by talking about broader issues or capitalism, socialists are “silencing” the voice of the oppressed. The idea is that political arguments made in the course of struggle somehow take away the agency of the oppressed or perpetuate their oppression. But a plurality of opinions within a campaign among people committed to winning common demands does not disempower anyone or cause oppression. On the contrary, free political expression better ensures that a variety of strategies and ideas can be engaged with and tested in the course of struggle, putting us all in a better position to win.

Often, what underpins these criticisms is a basic hostility to socialist ideas and radical politics. Business owners, those with aspirations to power, as well as those who have innocently absorbed capitalism’s “common sense” that appealing to those in power and having better “conversations” gives you the best chance of winning change, are hostile to socialist politics for obvious reasons. They are invested in the system. Others just want their ideas or strategies to dominate in a particular campaign, and look for easy ways to disparage rivals. Rarely are people open about this being their agenda, which makes accusations of socialists’ “hidden agendas”, which are not even hidden, both hypocritical and absurd.

Socialists and revolutionaries are committed to participating in social movements even when many within them have world views that are different to ours. We want to fight to win reforms within the system and push the struggle of working class and oppressed people forward. We do not make agreement with broader socialist politics a condition of cooperation, nor do we consider other viewpoints necessarily “problematic”. This is different from the approach that many involved in social movements today take, who seek to rubbish socialist arguments in order to maintain their own political dominance.

As a socialist, my agenda is clear. I believe that genuine human liberation is possible only in a world run on the basis of need, not profit. For this we need revolutionary struggle by the working class to overthrow capitalism and create a new, democratic socialist society. Partial reforms on their own will not be enough to solve the problems facing humanity; for that we need a broader challenge to the profit-driven logic that causes them.

Socialists also recognise that oppressed groups will not be able to overcome their oppression alone. The Palestinian movement will require uprisings all across the Arab world and in the imperial core like the United States in order to break the power of the Israeli state. In Australia, the Indigenous struggle will necessarily need to combine with the power of organised labour to win against the ruling class, the bosses and the government. That is why I believe it is strategically necessary to draw different social struggles together and extend solidarity between them.

None of this agenda is secret or hidden. What is hidden is that disdain for such an agenda is usually the expression of support, somehow or other, for the system and its various institutions. We’re all better off when we can see that for what it is.

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