The socialist objective: should it go?

George Campbell, Paul Smith & Gonzalo Villalta Puig

A challenge for 21st century Labor

George Campbell

Since my comments to the Sydney Morning Herald on 29 March, many have questioned why Labor should update its 'socialist objective' - the statement that appears on our party cards. The answer is simple. Labor needs to state its core values clearly, as a first step in recapturing the imagination and confidence of the community. Australians are entitled to know what motivates our policy agenda. Does anyone seriously believe that our policy agenda since 1983 was governed by the socialist objective?

The socialist objective should serve a purpose like that of a constitutional preamble. It should provide the framework within which our detailed policy is formed and reflect the type of society we as Labor activists aspire to create. While Labor's current 'socialist objective' may symbolise to us as party members what we have fought to achieve over 100 years of activism, it does not reflect the outcomes of recent Labor governments. The socialist objective does not reach out to those who feel betrayed by Labor's failures in government, and does little to attract the votes of those who have not had the opportunity or reason to support our movement. It is the responsibility of Labor activists to examine this legacy and constantly improve on it.

In a time of self-examination, Labor cannot afford to simply tinker with its structure. Nor can Labor complete a comprehensive policy review without debating what the core values anchoring our policy agenda are. If supporting or belonging to Labor is to become a badge of pride, progressive party members need a a rallying point. We need a new light on the hill that can build a support base into the 21st century.

In summary, the socialist objective refers only to "democratic socialisation to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation". Frankly, Labor supporters and members deserve more than this important but limited statement. In a complex world dominated by corporate globalisation, there are many specific sectors of society whose rights and needs deserve a voice in our statement of fundamental values. A Labor party that does not publicly proclaim its support for groups who face systemic discrimination, such as women and indigenous Australians, is not a Labor party to be proud of. Ditto accessible education, the environment and public broadcasting. It's also worth remembering the sanctity of the free market can be challenged in a pro-active way, rather than through defending the status quo.

Elements of the right are rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of a Blair-style makeover of the ALP's image. Well, bad news guys. Image makeovers will not fix our problems. Any changes to the socialist objective must be based on principle and in the spirit of reaching out to our core constituencies. The Australian public is sick of slick marketing and US buzzwords like "relationship campaigning". Such shallow analysis of Labor's problems will achieve nothing but to make us second rate versions of the Liberal's John Brogden.

Labor needs a statement of values that has credibility. This statement must be viewed as such in the community and in Labor's political and industrial wings. Using this statement, our supporters should be able to answer their friends and family with pride when they ask 'what the hell does Labor stand for'? Labor parliamentarians need to understand the public expects a clear alternative vision from them that is articulated and organised in a consistent manner. An updated socialist objective can assist in enforcing this accountability.

It should also be remembered the Labor movement is much more than a parliamentary voting bloc. Labor is the trade union movement and much of this country's community activism. Accordingly, Labor should strengthen and deepen its links with the trade unions, regardless of any changes to the socialist objective. We don't need to dilute what Labor stands for, but we do need to articulate it in an accessible way. We are a broad movement that needs a broad statement of values.

Labor's values shouldn't just appear on party membership cards. They should be on fridges, in office cubicles and, most importantly, in the hearts and minds of the public. This is especially so for our core constituencies who have deserted us in recent times.

If we are afraid to change a symbolic statement more than 80 years old, we can't hope to make the reforms necessary to revive our movement. It's time to ditch the corporate spin. It's time to stop clinging to a past we can improve upon. It's time to stop the talk of 21st century Labor and time to put down on paper what we collectively believe it to be.

If you don't like it, join the Liberals

Paul Smith

Rather than acknowledge that being a principle-free zone cost Labor the last election, and that having democratic participatory processes that lead to policies that make a difference is the key to relevance, the spin-doctors who first floated throwing unions out of their own party are now advocating putting out the Light on the Hill: the ALP's socialist objective.

There are three possible reasons why you might argue that the Labor Party should dump the socialist objective: 1. You have not read it; 2. You do not understand its historic significance; 3.You are a Liberal.

In a world of increasing inequality, where Labor's challenge is to reconnect with working people, the socialist objective is more relevant than ever because it provides a philosophical anchor for a reinvigorated policy agenda.

Every Labor membership card contains the objective. It reads very simply. It supports the "democratic socialisation of industry, production and exchange, to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features." The objective is a recognition that it is the role of government in a democratic society to intervene to ensure that all citizens get a fair go, and that we live in a decent society. Its focus is on outcomes for people; about eliminating exploitation and anti-social features. Market intervention is limited to the "extent necessary".

The pledge is a practical, flexible, commonsense statement of how a good government should operate in the best interest of all citizens. It contains 22 statements of principle, including explicitly recognising the right to own private property. It speaks to all the issues of modern society, as it has been regularly fine-tuned over the years. In contrast, opponents of the pledge appear ideologically obsessed with painting a picture of a tired, outdated Marxist manifesto, rather than dealing with what it actually says.

Those against the pledge have to ask themselves: are they against eliminating exploitation? Against eliminating anti-social features in society? Or are they just against challenging unfettered free-market ideology? If they are not prepared to challenge the market for the good of the many, then they are against the very reason Labor exists.

Labor's historic reason for existence is to create democratic institutions that protect ordinary citizens from exploitation by corporate power. The socialist objective is a statement of its reason for existence; it talks of "the aspirations of the Australian people for a decent, secure, dignified and constructive way of life", and the necessary historical struggle of unions for this aspiration, which gave birth to the party. It is a simple assertion that a fair society is more important than a market ideology. It could not be more modern or historically relevant. Why throw this away?

Nothing sets Labor apart from other parties more than its grand history. It's birth so dramatically altered the public debate about the role of government that the early Liberal leader, Alfred Deakin, declared "we are all socialists now". Labor carried the Australian ethos of a "fair go" into areas as diverse as work, health care and pensions. From the conscription, referendum to the dismissal; from the depression, to our leadership during World War II: the influence of Labor values has been the decisive force in our nation's political life. To throw this all away on the glib advice of a few spin-doctors would be as disastrous as throwing South Sydney out of the national rugby league.

Take away the team colours and the supporters won't recognise the team. Labor, after its lowest primary vote since before World War I, needs to reconnect with its potential supporters, not further confuse them. Simon Crean's Labor must draw on its fundamental principles to create an agenda that connects to real issues faced by ordinary Australians, in the same way Whitlam did before 1972. The fact that Chifley and Whitlam could respond differently in different times places them in the Labor tradition of practical application of principle. They did not need to throw out the principle. A policy of offering nothing different cost Labor the election. Those who want to get rid of Labor's principles and kick out the unions who started the party are part of the problem, not the solution.

Labor in New Zealand went back to first principles and advocated setting up a people's bank. The aspirational voters in the marginal seats loved the idea of lower fees and better service, and Helen Clark is now the Prime Minister. Citizens who feel insecure for economic reasons actually want the government to do something. In an age where the collapses of the Enrons and HIHs are destroying people's lives, the objective's historical commitment to stand up for Australian citizens against the big end of town is an electoral asset not to be thrown away.

Labor's opportunity is to do what it has always done: argue for economic and social policies that benefit the many, not the few. Within this framework of Labor principle there is opportunity for debate as to the best way forward. For those who don't like Labor principle, they can always join the Liberal Party.

Socialism: the champion of equality, liberty & fraternity

Gonzalo Villalta Puig


Socialism, traditionally the champion of equality, liberty and fraternity, maintains that, since production is socially derived, the means of production must be socially owned.1 Capitalism, however, gives custody of the means of production to a minority, who accumulate most of the wealth originating from production; while for the producers, the working class, only a meagre proportion of the fruits of their labour is the remuneration. This great disparity of reward causes an even greater socio-economic inequality. The exercise of liberty is restrained by extreme disproportion. Rampant individualism embitters what once were fraternal communities. Only through socialisation can equity be attained. Liberty and fraternity would enrich it.


Considered essential for the advancement of their values, socialists regard socialisation as their defining purpose.2 For socialists, the ideal of an egalitarian, free and fraternal society will remain a fiction for as long as the means of production are monopolised by a single social class operating within a capitalist economy.3 Once the means of production are socialised, there would follow a parity of reward and wealth that would translate into greater socio-political equality. Liberty, a condition of equality, and fraternity would follow suit.

Capitalism has been criticised from all socialist quarters: Richard Tawney considered it immoral, Karl Marx foretold the inevitability of its eventual collapse, and Sidney Webb considered it inefficient and wasteful.4 The now universal free market economy has destroyed the sense of community and, in doing so, perpetuated the unethical: excessive individualism, inequality and social tension. Wealth is generated for the few and misery for the many.5 The capitalist values of self-interested profit, competition and consumption have engendered a society devoid of fraternity and co-operation. Private property is the cruel determinant of power and privilege for a minority, and poverty and sacrifice for a majority, whose members have unwillingly become impersonal labour units. It is from the pursuit of equality, liberty and fraternity within a socialised economy that socialism launches its attack against capitalism.

Socialisation of the means of production

Generally, socialisation is the vision of an economy in which all elements significant to the production, distribution and delivery of socially indispensable goods are socially owned and controlled in the interest of the community.6 Yet, as Robert Berki notes, socialisation is far too indefinite a concept.7

More particularly, socialisation is any one of three economic models. Nationalisation is the first and best-known model, and applies whenever the state assumes the ownership and management of enterprises, both planning production and distributing its output. The co-operative experience, discussed by Alec Nove, of the Spanish town of Mondragón is, similarly, worthy of mention as an example of a small, autonomous economic system whose means of production have been collectivised.8 The third and final model of socialisation sees society assuming the right of ownership over the means of production. These are then at the disposal of particular workers' communities, from which society claws back, for the purposes of funding general public needs, a proportional share of their total income.

In any case, as Branko Horvat explains, socialisation would imply that there exists no particular class of owners of the means of production, either individual or collective. Everyone is equally an owner, which means that no one in particular is an owner.9 Property would no longer offer privileges, as the means of production would be accessible to everyone. Paul Sweezy adds that socialisation would imply an economic arrangement free from private employers, the private profit incentive, and market organisation of production.10 Economic activity would be socially supervised. Through planning and co-operation, private ownership of wealth and materialist accumulation would cease to be an economic stimulus.11 Everyone would be a worker and society would be the employer. Exploitation, or the capitalist command over the labour of others and the appropriation of non-labour income, would end with socialisation.12

Socialist values: equality, liberty & fraternity

Equality is the chief value of any socialist community.13 The socialist conception of equality envisions a society free from class and hierarchy, bonded by an overriding fraternal spirit, and comprised of individuals equal in worth and potential. Equality cannot be exact, but any differences in power, wealth, status or acquired abilities would be marginal and socially acceptable.14 In the words of Bernard Crick, socialist equality would shatter the chains of "... inhibition, restriction and exploitation [freeing] both individual personality and the full productive potential of society." 15

Is socialisation the sole avenue through which the ideal of an egalitarian society can be realised? The simple reply is yes. A precise answer, however, is complicated. Indeed, the implementation of the idea first articulated by Blanc - "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" - requires a classless society where everyone is an employee of the community, enjoying custody over the means of production, and in pursuit of providing for every public need.16 Yet, there are those who disagree.

Some socialists have advocated equality within mixed and, even, market economies.17 There are even those who call for the attainment of equality through a total parity of income. Within revisionist, state, and ethical socialist circles, the idea of the attainment of equality via the redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation, welfare benefits and established national minimums is increasingly winning new adepts.18 Others have advanced the idea of the provision of a guaranteed national social wage, whose egalitarian effect would be reinforced by legislation limiting top incomes.19

These ideas, however, are dismissed by the many socialists who still regard socialisation as the singular genuine guarantee of wider equality. Socialisation promises radical change, while other policies are eclectic, isolated reforms, intended to humanise the miseries of capitalism for the majority. None of these other policies pursues the social ownership and management of the means of production, and yet socialists of every inclination agree in the principle of production as being socially derived. Essentially, these other policies are ineffective against capitalism. Socialisation is the only guarantee of true equality because it secures its three components.

Equality must be secured in production, in consumption, and in the social sphere.20 Equality in production is a condition of socialisation, since the productive capital must be equally accessible to everyone. Likewise, equality in consumption can only be realised through a just share of earnings. In other words, the individual must obtain from the community exactly as much as he or she adds to the social output. This idea revolves around the notion of social capital. Finally, socialisation is important to the attainment of civic equality inasmuch as it has promoted productive and consumptive equality, for it is only through the latter two that greater equality is possible. Equal distribution of power and open participation in the political process will further cement the socialist commitment to universal suffrage, democracy, civil rights, and parity in areas of health and education, as well as gender.21

The call for liberty is characteristic of socialist ideology.22 Yet, it should not be ignored that the socialist notion of liberty differs from its liberal and conservative counterparts. Indeed, most theorists would regard liberty as an axiom of equality.23 Freedom, socialists would argue, is a falsity when co-existing with socio-economic inequality. Because the socialist attainment of liberty seeks the full development of the individual and the maximisation of choices, then creating equal conditions for making informed choices (implying adequate education, health, and income) and thus developing human potential, denotes the compatibility of the values of liberty and equality.24

The free market system enslaves liberty. Capitalism denies the masses a just share of production or satisfying work.25 Capitalist obstacles are numerous, and include class divisions, economic inequalities and, the ever prevailing, inequality of opportunity. Arguably, most, if not all, of the solutions to these problems converge into a single focal point: equality. Socialisation, as the most viable means of attaining equality, is a condition of liberty. Accordingly, it is reasonable to conclude that socialisation would answer the socialist call for liberty. Liberated men and women would no longer view work as a means of subsistence; rather, they would enjoy the opportunity to achieve their goals and aspirations, conscious of their duty not to infringe upon the liberties of others.

In an egalitarian and free society, fraternity appears likely. Socialists want fraternity for all seasons and possible for all; self-willed and enduring.26 Socio-economic equality is the basis of a fraternal society. It is futile to contend that, in the climate of gross inequality reigning over capitalism, goodwill can subsist. Capitalism invites competition, individualism and disparity; fraternity cannot prevail: it is weak and transient. What George Orwell described as "the rage for the accumulation of things" aborts the birth of a fraternal community.27 Nevertheless, socialisation will not suffice, for fraternity is not exclusively economically derived.

Fraternity is an attitude, an ethic; it is not, in any way, tangible. The socialist notion of fraternity sees individuals coming together for the purposes of attaining common objectives. Fraternity is the consequence of socially purposeful human relations; relations that do not exclude but rather include each and everyone. It presupposes human simplicity, yet it does not equate to sameness.

Fraternity is, largely, the emotional manifestation of a society graced by simplicity, lack of ostentation, friendliness, helpfulness, kindliness, openness, lack of restraint between individuals, everyday life and a willingness to work together in common tasks.28 Nonetheless, socialisation, as the catalyst of economic equality, must be the driving force in the socialist pursuit of fraternity, for it warrants a fraternal system of production that is both communal and co-operational.


Socialisation of the means of production is the foundation of the socialist platform, as are the values of equality, liberty, and fraternity. Socialisation, which rejects self-interested profit, competition and consumption, but embraces economic planning, co-operation and, as Wlodzimierz Brus stresses, social utility, would collapse the capitalist obstacles barring the advancement of a socialist community: economic exploitation and political oppression.29 Thus, it would empower the citizen, affording him or her a level of socio-economic status and access to the polity equal to that of his or her fellow citizen. Equality would free the citizenry to develop and maximise their choices within a fraternal society: the common pursuit of socially purposeful objectives in rejection of ostentation would foster brotherhood and sisterhood. Socialisation holds the key to economic equality and paves the path towards the attainment of the socialist values of equality, liberty and fraternity.

George Campbell is a Senator in the Australian Parliament. Paul Smith is a Labor Councillor on Sutherland Shire Council, the secretary of the NSW Fabian Society and an Australian Services Union activist in the IT Workers Alliance. His article was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 3 April 2002, and Workers Online. Gonzalo Villalta Puig is a Barrister and Solicitor, and a member of the Australasian Political Studies Association and the Australian Sociological Association.


1. R. Barker, "Socialism" in D. Miller, ed., The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987), 485.

2. Roger Scruton, A Dictionary of Political Thought (London: McMillan, 1982), 434.

3. Anthony Wright, Socialisms, Theories and Practices (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 23.

4. Andrew Vincent, Modern Political Ideologies (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), 110.

5. Wright, Socialisms, 23.

6. Terence Ball and Richard Dagger, Political Ideologies and the Democratic Ideal, 1st ed. (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), 119.

7. Robert N. Berki, Socialism (London: Dent, 1975), 10.

8. Alec Nove, The Economics of Feasible Socialism: Revisited, 2nd ed. (London: Harper Collins, 1991), 236.

9. Branko Horvat, The Political Economy of Socialism (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1982), 236.

10. Paul M. Sweezy, Socialism (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1949), 5.

11. Robert Leach, British Political Ideologies (London: Philip Allan, 1991), 118-19.

12. Horvat, The Political Economy of Socialism, 239.

13. Bernard Crick, Socialism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 88.

14. Ibid., 90.

15. Ibid., 79.

16. As cited per Barker, "Socialism", 486.

17. Vincent, Modern Political Ideologies, 103.

18. Ibid.

19. Crick, Socialism, 94-5.

20. Horvat, The Political Economy of Socialism, 229.

21. Vincent, Modern Political Ideologies, 103.

22. Wright, "Socialism", 34.

23. Horvat, The Political Economy of Socialism, 228.

24. Vincent, Modern Political Ideologies, 104.

25. Ball and Dagger, Political Ideologies and the Democratic Ideal, 121.

26. Crick, Socialism, 101.

27. Ibid., 106.

28. Ibid.

29. Wlodzimierz Brus, Socialist Ownership and Political Systems (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975), 17.

Suggested citation
Puig, George Campbell, Paul Smith & Gonzalo Villalta, 'The socialist objective: should it go?', Evatt Journal, Vol. 2, No. 4, June 2002.<>