The Australian Fabians must remain a movement for socialism

Tristan Ewins calls on socialists to join the Fabian Society to prevent its statement of purpose being stripped of its socialist objective.

Editorial note Labor Tribune welcomes Tristan Ewins call to fight for socialism throughout the movement and for the unity of socialists. However, the Fabian tradition was always about trying to marry the impossible: socialism for the working class with a reliance on the capitalist state. We believe a radical rebirth of the democratic core of Marxism - and the radical transcendence of the state from below - is required to overcome the liberal and anti-working class traditions in our movement.

From early September this year members of the Australian Fabians will have received a mail-out from the national executive announcing its intent to alter the constitution, in particular the statement of purposes, with the aim of removing all reference to socialism, classes, social and democratic ownership of any sort. The aim of this move appeared to be one of eliminating the traditional role of the Australian Fabians as a reformist socialist think-tank of the left, and of reducing it to a broad liberal forum devoid of traditional leftist aims or identity.

Rather than “by means of political democracy” working for a society in which “the economic power and privileges of individuals and classes [are] abolished through the collective ownership and democratic control of the economic resources of the community”, the national executive aimed to reduce the society’s statement of purposes to (among other things), “the [advocacy of] effective and just economic, social, environmental and cultural policies” and the upholding of “values of democracy, diversity, tolerance, truth, mutual respect and equality under the law”. Whereas there is nothing inherently wrong with these sometimes nebulous statements, they remain sentiments, rather than concrete political objectives. The severance of all sense of continuity with socialist tradition is absolute and it might even be said that there is not even any firm sense of commitment to social democracy as distinct from the liberalism the proposed ‘statement of purposes’ seems to promote.

Fortunately, the national executive has responded to widespread disquiet over the proposed changes, and the lack of debate which has characterised the process so far. Fabian national secretary, Evan Thornley, has recently stated at the Victorian branch of the AFS annual general meeting that he would now like to see a far-ranging and inclusive debate. Thornley’s statements were reinforced by the decision of the national AGM to postpone any decision on the future of the ‘statement of purposes’ – to allow for debate. Hopefully, such debate will prove favourable to perspectives desiring the inclusion of socialism, provision for social and democratic ownership and for a class perspective in the society’s ‘statement of purposes’. Nevertheless, this is far from the end of the story. Those on the national executive who have suggested these changes will likely forge ahead with some rephrased version of the proposed changes, while nevertheless still severing the sense of continuity with Fabian socialist tradition. It is therefore important that all who are concerned with these developments secure their Fabian membership for the next year and resolve to take part in the impending debate.

There are a number of matters at stake here. Firstly, we need to confront the allegation made by the national executive that the old ‘statement of purposes’ had “now been outgrown”, and their statement that they felt “uncomfortable” with the society’s prior ‘statement of purposes’.

Certainly, the fortunes of the world socialist movement have taken a battering over the past 25 years or so, with the imposition of neoliberal values and economic structures on economies throughout the Anglosphere and the adoption of neoliberal principles of deregulation, supposed small government and privatisation leading to a crisis of perceived relevance and of hope and faith among socialists in Australia, the United States, Britain and elsewhere. Furthermore, even though the evolutionary and reformist tendencies of the socialist movement were always distinct from Stalinism, the collapse of the Soviet Union also led to an onslaught of despair and defeatism, with the refusal of leading figures on the left to remobilise their members around a socialist program clearly distinct from the Soviet experience, and yet also clearly distinct from the neoliberal orientation embraced by successive Labor leaderships, leading only to further demobilization and decay. Today, few leading Labor figures dare even mention the word ‘socialism’ and fewer still are inclined to promote any policy which would upset the whims of volatile finance markets, or in any way compromise leadership ambitions. Indeed, the idea of socialism is one with which they feel ‘uncomfortable’: instead desiring to cling opportunistically to the mainstream ideology of a liberalism which in no way challenges deeply ingrained structures of class privilege and power.

There are many strands of thought which run through the socialist tradition, but it has always been the role of Fabian societies in Australia and Britain to preserve and further its evolutionary and reformist elements. For some, retaining a reformist Marxist perspective which treasured Marx’s insistence on ‘winning the battle of democracy’, this meant gradual progress towards universal social ownership, and the elimination of exploitation in all its forms. For others, Fabianism was a vehicle for social democracy: for welfare state reform, progressive and redistributive taxation, a democratic mixed economy, and even co-operative ownership and mutualism. Here, social democracy need not be thought of as being distinct from the socialist tradition, but rather ought be constructed as a bold current in a broader movement.

Today, all these strands of the broader socialist tradition are in disarray, crisis and various states of dissolution. In Australia, the class struggle which once animated the socialist movement is at a low ebb: the consequence of deindustrialisation, labour movement demobilisation and a resulting loss of class consciousness. The Marxist dialectic between capital and labour, also, no longer seems to promise any process of inevitable transition. Labour movement bureaucracies are often afraid to lead struggles for fear of legal retaliation from government, the strength of the state to suppress struggle and dissent and the prospective loss of assets and institutional strength. At the same time deindustrialisation and so-called ‘labour market reform’ is narrowing the labour movement’s base while successful anti-union propaganda alienates unions from the working class, leading to further demobilisation and marginalisation.

It is clear, now, that the Marxist view of history: as a dialectical unfolding of class struggles where the mobilisation and emiseration of the labouring masses led to socialist transition - can provide no comfort to a movement facing a crisis of dimensions unforeseen by Marxism’s original 19th century thinkers. Classes ‘in themselves’ continue to stand in bold relief, with spiralling levels of inequality confronting a society which, despite unprecedented levels of wealth, remains unable or unwilling to distribute that wealth fairly. The working class, however, is only at the fringes capable of seeing itself as a ‘class for itself’: the consequence of atomisation, labour casualisation and an ideology of consumerism and alleged ‘classlessness’: this despite a concentration of power and wealth previously unimaginable. Amid all this, can we fight back and, what is more, is there any more any alternative to liberalism as the hegemonic ideology of a broad Left which no longer identifies with class politics?

The key to this question rests in the embracing of a voluntarist liberal socialism as the ‘animating idea’ behind the broad movement. No longer can we talk about the ‘inevitable’ dawn of the new socialist society: the necessary consequence of the play of productive forces. A change of fortunes will occur through force of will, if at all, and here the role of the Fabian Society in providing a forum not only for internal discussion, but also a vehicle for proactive agitation, is key for the Australian labour movement. If anything, the experience of France, where a more militant, yet significantly less representative labour movement was able to force the retraction of regressive ‘labour market reforms’ for youth through protest and general strikes, shows the capacity of a strong and organised minority, with the support of a broader social base, to force change. As an organised minority within the broader labour movement, the Fabian Society still holds out the hope of leading policy debate and bringing about a sea-change of opinion in the Labor Party. In Britain recently, where there is little of inspirational value amongst the nebulous ‘Third Way’ orientation of the UK Labour Party, the Fabians succeeded in leading policy debate so as to bring about the tax reform necessary for progressive social expenditure and welfare state expansion.

Of course, the Fabian Society cannot, in of itself, bring about a socialist transition: not without the firm base of a mass party committed to the same principles and objectives. A key objective of the Fabian Society, therefore, ought also be the promotion of organisational reform in the ALP, with the intent of opening structures to accommodate mass membership and participation.

Socialism remains relevant for the ALP and for the Fabian Society for many reasons. Exploitation remains a fact of life. As ‘labour market reform’ deepens, the ranks of the working poor will swell, and many more millions already work in insecure environments with little opportunity to effectively organise. Governments are hostage to the whims of finance markets and never before has the wealth of the world been concentrated in the hands of such a self-conscious minority: a minority which through the World Trade Organisation, World Bank, International Monetary Fund and other bodies seeks to export the neoliberal template to the entire world.

The legacy of neoliberalism and privatisation can be seen in the growing marginalisation of public health and education, and the crisis of an ageing population seems to promise further indignities for the poor and aged in the near future as access to quality care is increasingly dependant upon wealth.

Social ownership remains one possible response to this crisis, with the participation of government business enterprises promising to upset oligopolies, enhance competititon, create an additional stream of revenue for government and provide progressive cross subsidisation to the poor and needy. Furthermore, social ownership in communications, banking and other fields holds the promise of accelerated and universal service and infrastructure provision. Co-operative ownership in other economic fields holds the promise of economic democracy, and grassroots participation in economic decision-making. The welfare state, meanwhile - that great achievement of social democracy - is under siege from all sides, with the Howard conservative government eager to dismantle the remnants of the post-World War II social-democratic consensus and the Whitlam legacy. Expanding progressive taxation and policies of redistribution through social provision of health, education, infrastructure including public transport and roads, aged care, public housing and other services, also remain core socialist objectives. Finally, as the role of pension funds increases in a world desperate for capital, the democratisation of these funds, the introduction of Meidner-style redistributional policies and the harnessing of funds for social purposes: all these remain matters for serious debate and collective action among democratic socialists and social democrats.

To those in this debate who deride socialism, claiming that the AFS needs to ‘move into the 21st century’, there are a number of responses. As recognised, the cause of socialism has suffered more than its share of setbacks over the past 25 years. Nevertheless, ought hard times necessarily lead to ideological capitulation? As ‘a matter of relevance’ should all political parties and social movements frame their objectives and principles within the dominant neoliberal ideology? And if the principles of political liberalism, which rose to prominence in the 19th century, are enduring after all this time, why ought the principles of socialism not also be considered enduring?

At the time when Friedrich Hayek was writing ‘against the grain of public opinion’, attempting in vain to popularise his neo-liberal ideology, the Keynesian commitment to counter-cyclical expenditure, the welfare state and the mixed economy was hegemonic and seemed unmovable. Today, social democracy is in retreat: but should we capitulate, or should we start planning a counter-offensive? If anything, the example of Hayek shows that ideas, once marginal, can rise to prominence with the determined intervention of their adherents and supporters. Surely, the ‘social problem’ of poverty, inequality, market failure and social injustice which gave rise to the socialist movement in the 19th century has not disappeared: and so long as there remains a ‘social problem’, then socialism will remain a relevant response.

Any attempt to ascertain the socialist movement’s ‘relevance’ must be begin from that movement’s broad heterogeneity: from the socialism of the mixed economy, wage-earner funds and the welfare state; to the socialism of mutualism and co-operative enterprise; to the more radical and overtly anti-capitalist socialism being promoted in Central and South America by the Venezuelans and others. If anything, the broad heterogeneity of socialist movements deepens those movements’ relevance and their adaptability to modern times.

Because of the long shadow cast even today by past authoritarian socialist models, the union of liberal and socialist objectives is key for the transformation and survival of the socialist tradition. Although liberalism alone does not provide the answer to the ‘social question’ of poverty, crisis and social inequality which called socialism into existence, the liberal democratic framework provides the means by which, as Marx once put it, socialists can ‘win the battle of democracy’.

The liberal democratic framework provides the means for free and open exchange of ideas, freedom of association, freedom to struggle, freedom to secure democratic change. Insofar as our society does not enable such freedoms and liberties: for instance, there is no right to withdraw labour - then it is not truly liberal democratic. Furthermore, liberal democracy provides stability through an almost universally-acknowledged pluralism and prevents the kind of desperation seen where vacuums of power have led to a ‘winner takes all’ ‘life or death’ struggle for survival.

While historically some on the left were contemptuous of what they saw as ‘bourgeois’ democratic institutions, today we must defend to the end those entrenched liberties that enable us to struggle for a better world without fear of repression or political violence. However, we ought remember that so long as the state retains its role as guarantor of private property, it retains a class character - albeit one of contradiction as the field of the state is imprinted by the logic of class struggle. The contradiction between a state which guarantees the privileges of private property on the one hand, while promoting policies of redistribution on the other, is terrain we must negotiate carefully, seeking to extend social democracy at all times, while never acting in a manner which compromises the stability of the political system which ensures all our liberties.

What, then, is the answer? What kind of statement of purposes ought the Fabian Society embrace if it is to remain true to its traditions, while remaining relevant and forward looking? To begin with, we need to be careful of words such as ‘relevant’ which all too easily can be reduced to the question of how compatible our values are with the dominant ideology.

A retained commitment to socialist and liberal principles could possibly be secured by including in the Fabian Society’s ‘Statement of Principles’ the following:

To provide a forum for the discussion of democratic socialist politics, ideas and principles and a vehicle for agitation for these politics, ideas and principles, including the tackling of stratification, exploitation and disadvantage based on class and advocacy for a democratic economy, including strategic socialisation of infrastructure, services and enterprises, and the promotion of mutualism, co-operativism and democratic wage-earner funds as vehicles for economic democracy.
To promote an open, inclusive and participatory public sphere, including a variety of participatory and alternative media, the provision of civic public space, and public meetings, conferences and forums.
To agitate and struggle for the realisation of liberal rights and principles such as: equality before the law, pluralism, freedom of speech, assembly and association, equality of opportunity, and the right to collectively bargain and withdraw labour.
To promote and provide a forum for the discussion of policies favouring co-existence with and preservation of the natural environment.
To support struggles and policies which seek to overcome oppression and exploitation in its manifest forms: whether based upon class, gender, sexual orientation, race, nationality, religion or ethnicity.
To promote and discuss the establishment and sustenance of a progressive welfare state and social wage, including: the universal provision of quality services in health, education and aged care, and the funding of welfare, services and infrastructure through a comprehensive regime of progressive taxation.
To promote and discuss the aim of progressive and egalitarian labour market regulation, including a comprehensive regime of minimum wages and conditions across all occupations and industries, and occupational health and safety provisions.
To further the principles of democratic socialism, liberal democracy and social democracy and the education of the public in these principles by the holding of meetings, lectures, discussion groups, conferences and summer schools, the promotion of research into political, economic and social problems, appropriate international exchange and co-operation with like-minded social movements globally, the publication of books, pamphlets and periodicals, and by any other appropriate means.

For those committed to the cause of progressive social, political and economic reform, the above suggestions for inclusion in a revamped ‘statement of purposes’ ought not be controversial. Provisions for strategic social and democratic collective ownership promise the promotion of popular sovereignty over the economy, as well as universal provision of services and infrastructure: a valuable counter to the prevailing culture of monopolism, finance market volatility and obsession with short-term profitability regardless of social need.

The question of class is also addressed in the above proposal: in recognition of the view that progressives ought not be blind or indifferent to the stratification, exploitation and disadvantage that occurs as a consequence of one’s position in the productive process and as a result of steep differences in wealth, power and prestige. What is more, the inclusion of diverse forms of social and democratic ownership within the statement of purposes allows for a wide variety of thought and opinion within the organisation, ranging from that aim of a democratic mixed economy to the goal of socialising the economic ‘commanding heights’. The inclusion of a commitment to accommodate diverse perspectives: democratic socialist, liberal and social democratic, seeks to ensure an inclusive and broad movement: although not so broad that core commitments are opportunistically jettisoned.

Here, ‘social democracy’ and ‘democratic socialism’ ought ultimately be promoted as being interchangeable terms. The division of the left, harking back to the split of the social democratic movement into internationalist and opportunist camps as a consequence of world war in 1914, should no longer prove an obstacle to the reclaiming of the language of social democracy by radicals, and the reintegration of the social democratic and democratic socialist movements. The wide variety of social and democratic forms of ownership considered: including public ownership, co-operativism, mutualism, and wage earner funds; provides for a valuable pluralism within the organisation with regards to the subject of social and democratic ownership. Also, the suggested aims provide for a deep and expansive commitment to civil liberties, an inclusive and democratic public sphere, just labour market regulation, and the principle of environmental sustainability.

Finally, while there is a broad and inclusive understanding of the manifold causes and kinds of exploitation and oppression, the above aims retain a commitment to the practical work of education, discussion and research, as well as to vital international exchange, solidarity and co-operation.

For those pressing hard to dilute the content the Australian Fabians constitution to the point where it resembles a kind of ‘pseudo-liberalism’, this will hardly be satisfying. The movement for change appears largely to be one aimed at broadening the base at the expense of distinctive ideological content. The changes recently proposed by the national executive were tantamount to liquidating the Australian Fabian tradition: a tradition which is one of reformist and evolutionary socialism. Keeping the statement of principles as is would be preferable to the mooted process of liquidating social democracy into a nebulous pseudo-liberalism: but further enunciation of Fabian principles as outlined above ought be given serious consideration as a means of deepening and expanding the Fabian commitment to social justice. While there is nothing wrong with liberal politics per se, and there ought be a combined liberal and social democratic framework within which political discourse takes place, pure liberalism, not complemented by socialist principles, is not the tradition of Fabianism, and does not provide a way forward in terms of redressing the numerous modern manifestations of the social problem of poverty, inequality and economic crisis.

It is, then, with these closing statements that I recommend to readers who happen to be members of the Australian Fabians that they participate in the impending process of discussion about the future of the organisation and of its statement of purposes. To those on the left who are not yet members, but who are committed to the principle of democratic socialist reform, I recommend that such people seriously consider membership in the movement: thus opening the way for participation in this vital debate.

Finally: should the moves to liquidate the Australian Fabians as a society of socialist reform succeed, those concerned should not simply quietly melt away into silence. Rather, any such change should mark the beginning of a new struggle to reclaim the Fabian socialist tradition.

Tristan Ewins is a teacher, grassroots Fabian Society and ALP activist, and freelance writer.


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