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Laborís Socialist Objective is essential to its identity and future

By Tristan Ewins - posted Thursday, 26 September 2002

Barely a month goes by, it seems, without Australians being treated to boasts of the ‘fresh’ and ‘innovative’ policy direction and leadership taken by such relatively articulate Labor figures as Federal MP, Mark Latham. Here, the "old" is taken to be traditional social democratic/democratic socialist values and policies: income redistribution, a robust welfare state, progressive labour market regulation, economic democracy and the mixed economy. The "new", by comparison, is any policy initiative that moves terms of debate to the neo-liberal right. Whereas democratic socialist ideas are lampooned as redundant ideas of ‘the Old Left’ (often arbitrarily and absurdly linked with Stalinism), such crude caricatures are not extended to the enduring values of political liberalism, which have retained their force since J.S.Mill (who, incidentally, had little trouble recognising the socialist movement as a valid potential co-traveller with his own liberal tradition). These caricatures are extremely selective, in keeping with an underlying agenda of liquidating social democracy and democratic socialism, and narrowing the political field.

Political ideologies should not be thought of in the same sense as consumer brands, where the new is always exciting and the ‘old’ is discarded as worthless. Political values are enduring and constant, as the survival of political liberalism has shown, and the values of socialism – extended democracy, compassion and social and distributive justice – are enduring also. Pressure, however, is beginning to mount once more for the abandonment of the ALP’s Socialist Objective as part of the so-called "modernisation" process. As always, modernisation of this sort amounts to change for the sake of change – and it is not accidental that such change inevitably involves the progressive dissolution of social democratic/democratic socialist commitments.

In 1913, V.I. Lenin observed: "Actually [the Labor Party] is a liberal-bourgeois party, while the so-called Liberals in Australia are really Conservatives".


Although few of us today would identify as Leninists, Lenin’s observation retains a degree of force. The Liberal Party is, indeed, a conservative party: a party of privilege and reaction. Labor, by contrast, borrows heavily from political/social liberalism – in particular small ‘l’ liberalism. This does not necessarily present a problem unless this aspect of our ideological inheritance is seen as a substitute for democratic socialism, rather than a complementary influence.

Equal opportunity and civil rights are at the core of the modern ALP’s philosophy, and as such it is right that we recognise the debt we owe the liberal tradition. But, as history has also shown, the aims of progressive liberalism (for example, equal opportunity) are not all realisable within the narrow constraints of narrowly economic liberalism or neo-liberalism. Equal opportunity, of employment, education, or expression, depends on a redistribution of opportunities that can only be achieved through democratic socialist/social democratic means.

Liberalism, then, (at least, the small ‘l’ liberalism of ‘equal opportunity’), is part of the way forward. It forms part of our ideological inheritance and, to be meaningful to us, should not be separated from social democracy. Socialist policies of redistribution and social provision thus form a crucial and necessary condition of achieving liberal ends. The democratic socialist/social democratic tradition, however, was always more ambitious, aiming for extended democracy (including economic democracy), socially just outcomes, provision of goods and service on the basis of need, social inclusion and solidarity, and human liberation.

The democratic socialist tradition as expressed through the Objective aims for real democracy, in the economy, the state, and broader civil society, as opposed to the rule of wealth. It seeks to abolish poverty and social injustice, and to precipitate a more just, compassionate and humane order based upon dignity, autonomy and human solidarity.

Specifically, the 'Socialist Objective' (taken here as referring to the entire body of the Party's objectives and principles, not merely the 'socialisation objective'), aims (among other things) for the following:

"c) Redistribution of political and economic power so that all members of society have the opportunity to participate in the shaping and control of the institutions and relationships which determine their lives.


"d) Maintenance of and support for a competitive non-monopolistic private sector, including small business and farming, controlled and owned by Australians, operating within clear social guidelines and objectives.

"l) Equal access and rights to employment, education, information, technology, housing, health and welfare services, cultural and leisure activities and the law.

"j) The abolition of poverty, and the achievement of greater equality in the distribution of income, wealth and opportunity.

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This is part of a submission to the ALP's Macklin Policy Review. The ALP's socialist objective will probably be considered at the Special Conference on October 5 & 6.

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About the Author

Tristan Ewins has a PhD and is a freelance writer, qualified teacher and social commentator based in Melbourne, Australia. He is also a long-time member of the Socialist Left of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). He blogs at Left Focus, ALP Socialist Left Forum and the Movement for a Democratic Mixed Economy.

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