Is marxism relevant to the labour movement today?

This was the title of a forum held in Sydney on 16 May 2006, organised by Labor Tribune ( Nearly 70 people attended to hear the views of Meredith Burgmann, Andrew West, Jack Mundey and Marcus Strom.

Here is a nutshell report of each speaker’s case as I understood it, and questions arising from that particular case, that did not get canvassed on the night.

1. Meredith Burgmann, Labor MLC and President of the NSW Legislative Council put her case that marxist economic analysis is absolutley relevant, but marxism is not relevant to politics. Marxism is about materialism, and yes, money does matter. Women, for example, will never be equal with men, while they get less money than men. The idea that money doesn’t make you happy only comes form rich people. People without enough money, who worry about how to pay their bills, do expect more money, up to a point, to make them happier.

Meredith was also proud to have been a member of one of the very few unions that voted against the Accord. Other speakers talked about pushing down the wall of capitalism to achieve socialism. Meredith said she has never been able to picture how that might happen.

I guess that as a longterm member of the NSW Labor Government, it would be very surprising to hear Meredith say that marxism is relevant to politics. Not many people would put the ideas of marxism and the NSW Labor Government together, and Meredith has not been in the news for running into serious bother with the ALP. However, more seriously – it is a worry that Meredith is so accepting of the separation between politics and economics that elected governments depend on in order to get away with bowing to the requirements of capital and the profit motive. Can a democratically elected government make decisions which would challenge profit-making, and so introduce an element of marxism to politics? I think so. For example state governments could decide to only invest public funds in publicly owned and operated services, such as transport, health, education, housing. State governments could set policies for environmental sustainability and improved health linked to providing positive alternatives, urban planning and regulations to reduce use of unhealthy products such as fast foods, tobacco, petrol. Political parties in government don’t do these things either because they are in government explictly for the rich (the Liberals) or becasue they want the support of capital, and they either believe in or are frightened to oppose capital.

Questions for Meredith: What pressures are Labor governments, and the Labor Party under from capital? What are some decisions that you and fellow thinkers in the ALP and unions might like to see the Party make in government despite these pressures, and what might be the consequences of making those decisions?

2. Andrew West, journalist and Fabian argues that marxism is irrevocably tainted by Stalinism, and is of no current use. Instead 3 principles are needed for politics – fairness, community and sustainability.

Andrew sounds as though he’s trying to modernise and popularise some older social-democractic ideals, and advocate them for an unknown political party. Popular opinion would get the supporting party elected, becasue the principles are so – well – fair and reasonable. This seems naive. It shows no recognition that there is more power outside of, than inside parliament, and that fair and reaonable ideas don’t win the day in and of themselves. Business, capital, has extra-parliamentary power and the profit motive is not fair and reasonable.

Questions for Andrew West: Why do principles such as these strengthen or weaken at different times in history? What are the most powerful forces operating against these principles, and which social forces have the greatest potential and interest in advancing them? What are the likely actions of the powerful against attempts to assert these principles and how can they be answered?

3. Jack Mundey was a BLF leader during the Green Bans, and a former member of the former Communist Party of Australia.

Jack’s case was that the best moments and achievements of 20th century history were inspired by Marxists, so despite errors committed in the name of Marxism, we need it. And especially we need unity against WorkChoices.

Although unionists, socialists, marxists are all against WorkChoices, there are differences over how to beat it. I think that an industrial campaign is needed, and can be prepared even if it is difficult ot launch immediately – because unions are out of practice at taking industrial action, because so few union leaders organise industrail campaigns, because they might fail due to lack of strength, becasue unions are out of practice at taking industrial action…etc, in a vicious downward spiral, that needs to be broken to realy defeat WorkChoices. High Court challenges, the possible defeat of the Coalition in a federal election, all might soften the blow a little, but none of them are going to restore union rights, the right to organise – without unions exercising those rights.

Questions for Jack Mundey: What is it most important to unite around? How do we deal with the contradiction that many union and Labor leaders do not do the best they can by their members? Does this mean for example that you think it is wrong to debate the best way to beat WorkChoices, and wrong to argue for an industrial campaign, against official ACTU or Labor Council policies that are ineffectual?

4. Marcus Strom, editor of Labor Tribune. Marxism is relevant with a much broader concept of class struggle, which should be about politics, democracy and a republic, rather than narrow economism. Strikes and elections are both tactical issues and not the essence of Marxism. Labor Tribune is for a democratic republic, which would obviously strengthen workers rights, and make it possible for workers to build a struggle for socialism.

I’m not at all sure who other than oganised labour Marcus would want to lead the struggle for a democratic republic. And if organised labour were to lead such a struggle, why Marcus would not also advocate that it be socialist? Marcus labelled concern for industrial politics and industrial action as narrow economism. The last time I remember hearing left-wingers warn of the need for something bigger and more political than narrow economism, it was when they were advocating – the Accord! Yes, this is a dfferent project than the Accord. But the argument is a false counter-position, which was used last time to argue not FOR a broader vision than industraial action alone, but as an alternative which required the forsakimg of industrial action. Marcus made valid criticisms of the central control of the Rights at work campaign, which made it so difficult to set up local and grass roots activist groups around Rights at Work. But he also was at best equivocal about the need for an industrail campaign.

Questions for Marcus Strom and LaborTribune: Can the labour movement make a mark on politics when it is industrially weak? Can the labour movement be strong if it does not have the capacity to take industrial action? How can the labour movement have the capacity to take industrial action when its leaders by and large see such action as dangerous, and the vast bulk of the membership has very limited if any experience or practice at it? In these conditions isn’t the capacity to take industrial action something that has to deliberately built with the knowledge of the rank and file, rather an option at the fingertips of officials that can be pulled out swiftly and unannounced, as a “tactic” might be.

The meeting itself was rather inconclusive, not surprisingly, but there was general welcoming of the establishment of a forum for discussing the topic. Here is a contribution to that discussion. If by any chance any of hte speakers think that I have not done justice to their argument, I
‘d be very pleased to have a clearer explanation. The aim of this is not to present their argumetns weakly in order to knock them down, but to understand their arguments in order ot evaluate their usefulness. So – I should follow up with positive proposals. Another post soon.


  1. MikeNewman

    HiI helped organise the “Marxism Relevant” event back in May and just stumbled across your blogYou make some detailed and pertinent comments about the evenings four contributions. I wondered if you would let Labor Tribune link to your blog and perhaps give us an opportunity to respond.As an aside – it is Meredith’s talk that has stuck in my mind, maybe becuase she went first, i don’t know. What i keep coming back to is her, i believe, overconcentration on money (economics) as opposed to rights, democracy, working-class power etc (politics). She reminds me of a communist (SPA/CPA) mate who “thinks that things have to hit workers in the hip pocket” before they’ll get active. Thanks again for your post…comradely,

  2. thirdshift

    Hi Mike,Sorry for taking so long to find your post. I don’t succeed in blogging in reality as often as I compose posts in my mind (is my my mind a virtual space?). I’m waiting for 3rd or 4th Life to be invented and allow for virtual posting to the virtual world.In the meantime, yes, please feel free to link, if indeed there is still something to link from. I haven’t been able to find Labor Tribune lately. Unfortunately the activation of workers I think is more than either money (economics) or rights (politics). If it were one or the other i would simplify activism. But I think it is a more complicated mixture of those 2 plus ideology, ideas…Janet

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