What kind of organisation is Socialist Alternative?

28 May 2024
Luca Tavan
Socialist Alternative's red bloc at a Palestine march in Sydney PHOTO: Socialist Alternative Sydney (Facebook)

Socialist Alternative is a revolutionary socialist organisation. The point of a socialist group is ultimately to fight to overthrow the capitalist system and create a world run democratically by workers—one that prioritises human need, not profit.

In moments of mass resistance, which break out periodically under capitalism, the question of which political forces are the best organised becomes crucial. The ruling class have numerous defences to protect their rule, from repressive laws and armed police to the loyalty of “moderates” in the movement—reformist politicians, well-heeled NGO leaders, union officials and more. A socialist party is necessary to combat these “respectable” and “pragmatic” leaders who are invested in, and enjoy a privileged position within, the system as it is. They tend to argue that workers and the oppressed should rely on their leadership and their efforts to bring change through official channels, rather than workers’ own power. This functions to protect the status quo.

Socialists, by contrast, argue that real social change is possible only when the mass of people are actively engaged in bringing about change. In workplaces, this means workers taking control and deciding for themselves what to produce and how, in a collective and democratic manner.

This is exactly what tends to happen at high points of social struggle or during revolutions, but can easily be crushed or coopted by those looking to preserve the system. This is why a mass socialist party is necessary: to push in the direction of mass action and stronger grassroots organisation. That requires people who can argue and convince others of the need to dismantle the police, armies and parliamentary institutions that back up the rule of the rich, and to begin building a new society based on democracy and solidarity.

We’re a long way from this today, but this gigantic and urgent task isn’t going to be accomplished by pontificating in armchairs and waiting until the barricades go up. It requires an organisation of people committed to building resistance wherever possible in the here and now—while also preparing for the much larger challenges to come. Through campaigns and organising, socialists can gain experience in fighting for and winning things, figure out what tactics and strategies are effective and learn who are allies or enemies.

This is why we expect our members be active wherever they are—whether at work or on a university campus. It’s why we take working in campaigns seriously—from the fight for marriage equality to the campaign against racism and fascism, to struggles for workers’ rights and against education cuts. We want to win these demands because we support workers and the oppressed having as much control over their lives and the highest living standards possible within the confines of capitalism. And every struggle is a chance to learn how to challenge the power of the capitalist class and its defenders.

So whenever or wherever the oppressed and exploited have a grievance against the system, socialists want to stand with them, to strengthen the fight, learn from it and, through this process, demonstrate in practice the veracity of socialist politics.

This is particularly important at work. Our members are often doing the painstaking and unglamorous work of convincing individual workmates to join the union or raising their voices about seemingly small workplace grievances. But this work, which builds union culture and marks out socialists as workplace leaders, is invaluable. It can at times lead to fairly impressive union activism considering the current state of class struggle. Socialist Alternative members have led or been an important part of a number of strikes across Australia, and more recently a walkout of hundreds of community service workers in Melbourne in solidarity with Gaza. Also, socialists can’t expect workers to follow their lead in a radicalisation if they have not already proved themselves to be committed, principled workplace activists. Any organisation that is serious about its claim that workers have the power to bring about socialism must be part of the workers movement and aim to win the respect of other workers.

We are also involved in the gargantuan task of building a genuinely radical electoral alternative to Labor, establishing the electoral coalition Victorian Socialists, which has won more than 8 percent of the vote in a series of working-class suburbs across the state and put socialist ideas on the map. These campaigns have involved conversations with countless thousands of people, where we must make socialist ideas and strategies accessible and convincing to those not already involved in activism.

In all the campaigns we’re a part of, our approach is determined by our socialist politics.

Because we are revolutionaries, we don’t limit what we demand to what we think will be acceptable to those in power. This stands in contrast to moderate organisations and NGOs, which often oppose even minimal demands and activism for fear of alienating their friends in high places or being seen as “extreme” or “fringe” and not listened to by those in power.

For example, when we called demonstrations against the coal-championing Liberal government at the height of the bushfire crisis in 2020, “progressive” NGOs fell over themselves to parrot police and media talking points about protests being “inappropriate” during a time of national emergency. We said, “Ignore the manipulative cops and come to the bushfire protests”, mobilising 100,000 people across the country.

Similarly, most of the union leaders have been utterly silent since Labor won government, whilst wages and working conditions have taken a battering. Socialist Alternative is a small group, and we don’t pretend we can transform the union movement, but when we are able to put an argument against the more conservative line of union leaders, we can find an audience.

For instance, a Socialist Alternative member argued at a mass meeting of Western Australian nurses during their last contract negotiations to reject the state Labor government’s insulting pay cut offer, leading to nurses voting to demand a 10 percent pay increase. During the pandemic, members of Socialist Alternative led a national campaign to defeat a proposed 15 percent wage cut on every worker in the university sector, a plan that was being pushed by the university union itself.

These campaigns are often inspiring to participate in. They raise participants’ political horizons, give them experience in organising and allow them to draw practical lessons. They demonstrate in practice that the instincts and attitudes of workers are frequently well in advance of their “representatives”, but so often are invalidated by those with a more conservative agenda.

But campaigning alone is not enough. Small victories can be overturned. And, the reality is, many campaigns and struggles don’t win their demands. This doesn’t mean that those campaigns are a waste of time. But defeat often demoralises people and leads to pessimistic conclusions. Importantly, though, this is not inevitable—defeats can be important learning experiences that make victory next time more likely. And, if the appropriate political conclusions are drawn, they help establish political lessons in the eyes of those who take part that are important for future struggles. Socialist organisation plays an important role in this, by helping to ensure that the skills, insights and political principles learnt through generations of class and social struggles are passed on and built upon in a way that can shape the future of the workers’ movement—toward overthrowing the entire system. That’s why socialists meet, discuss and write about struggles, and attempt to draw the participants into ongoing political activity, rather than let them drift away when the campaign ends.

The fight for a better world is not an easy, linear path. It is paved with ups and downs, victories and defeats, rapid surges and temporary setbacks. Socialists can learn from all of this to try to give us a better shot in the future.

Winning in the long term will require building a mass socialist organisation that is capable of leading strikes and rebellions, thinking and acting collectively, and arguing effectively for revolutionary ideas.

This is why we don’t just organise activism: we take constructing an experienced, collaborative group seriously. There are many elements to this.

It means, first and foremost, constantly growing our ranks. To challenge capitalism, we are going to need socialist organisers embedded in every workplace, every campaign and on every university campus.

That starts today with recruiting individuals, educating them in socialist ideas and giving them the political experience to become effective organisers and recruiters. This is why we promote our politics at rallies, sell a publication and regularly host anti-capitalist meetings after the demonstration concludes.

Contrary to the complaints of some, this isn’t “hijacking” or bringing an “outside agenda”. This is what every serious organisation, and even many individuals, do in every struggle. Every campaign is a battle of ideas, bringing together people who want to work for a common goal but have different political approaches. Not all those approaches will lead to victory. Arriving at the best strategy is possible only in a democratic environment where all these competing strategies and ideas can be aired, tested and evaluated.

What’s more, many activist campaigns have been sustained only because a minority of participants were convinced to become ongoing socialist organisers, turning a moment of protest into a lifelong political commitment. The more socialists we recruit today, the more people there are who will continue to build resistance in the future.

For a socialist group to be effective, it must build a culture of serious political activity. This is why we make regular activity a requirement of membership.

This is not only about maximising the impact Socialist Alternative can have on society. It is also necessary for the organisation to be democratic. We make decisions, carry them out and evaluate them collectively. Only an active membership can hold the leadership to account and learn how to be leaders themselves.

All the work that Socialist Alternative does takes significant resources. Running multiple campaigns, a national publication and theoretical journal, renting or booking venues to organise in, hosting the Marxism conference every year—all this costs money. We are funded through members’ own financial contributions, which vary according to their personal situation. For a revolutionary organisation, this is even more important than for other parties because it’s a question of political independence—to function as a radical group, we can’t rely on corporate donations as the ALP does, or government grants as is the case for NGOs.

We organise weekly branch meetings in every area where we have a presence. These meetings allow members to discuss what’s happening in the world and campaigns we are involved in, and to deepen our collective knowledge of history and political theory. And they are able to democratically decide the direction of the group, unlike most traditional political parties, which operate according to a top-down model. We have elected leadership structures at a campus, city and national level to coordinate the activities of our group, all of which are democratically accountable to the members.

Socialists need to be well organised and determined if we’re going to have an impact. But revolutionary groups won’t build themselves—they have to be consciously consolidated by those who believe it’s possible for workers to build a society that’s fit for human existence, even if we’ll always be in a minority outside of major political crises and radicalisations.

We still have a long way to go—from an organisation of around 600 to many thousands. But we also have a proud history of campaigning, and a conviction that our politics stand a chance of winning the fight for a better world. If you agree with these ideas, you should join the largest and most serious group of revolutionaries in Australia today—you should join Socialist Alternative.

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