Ben Peterson is an Australian socialist who recently moved to Aotearoa/NZ, joining Fightback and Unite. Fightback writer Ian Anderson asked Ben a few questions about socialism, trade union work, and his experiences on both sides of the Tasman.
FB: How did you become a socialist?
BP: I think that’s an interesting question. There’s certain values that I’ve had that as long as I can remember, I’ve always hated injustice, and I think I’ve always had empathy for other people, especially those that are struggling. When I was in high school I was increasingly frustrated with inequality, war and all the bullshit in the world.
When I came across socialist politics it gave me a means to understand the world, and a vehicle to fight for something different. I didn’t so much become something new, as I gave vent to feelings I think I’d always had. And since then I’ve been trying to do my bit organizing against injustice and environmental destruction.
FB: In Australia you were active in Resistance, and Socialist Alliance. Can you talk about this work?
BP: I came across Resistance (a socialist youth organization) and Socialist Alliance in 2006 when I was in high school, and I’ve been involved since then. Since 2009 I was heavily involved in local and national leadership bodies and and was involved in branches in Geelong, Melbourne, Perth, Sydney, Hobart and Adelaide.
The Socialist Alliance project is an ambitious one. It has union interventions, elected local councillors, student clubs and more. I’ve been involved in so many campaigns, it’s hard to succinctly describe what we do, but I can say that I’ve learnt that socialism can be relevant, and that we can build an organisation and have an impact, even from our small and isolated beginnings.
FB: In Australia last year, your organisation Socialist Alliance began a unity process with Socialist Alternative. This process, involving the two largest revolutionary socialist organisations in the country, was terminated. What’s your view of this process and its lessons?
BP: I think one of the objective challenges for the left groups today is to find ways to overcome the stratification and isolation of the Marxist left. This is true for both Australia and Aotearoa, and in places around the world. So I think it was an overwhelmingly positive thing that these talks happened, and it is a setback that they were not able, at this point, to go any further.
That being said, I don’t think the process collapsed over nothing. Unity cannot happen just because we want it to, it’s going to take time to thrash out a way forward for the left, and to build the organisation that can make it happen. For now, there are real differences between the groups in Australia around what is possible for socialists today, and how to build our organisations. But the greater dialogue between groups can only be a good thing.
FB: You’ve taken a job for Unite in Aotearoa/NZ. What is the value of working in Unite, in your view?
BP: I’m excited to be a part of Unite because I think that Unite is an interesting political project.
I don’t think that for socialists, working for a union is in and of itself something progressive, but I think Unite has real space to be involved with important campaigns. I think the campaigns that Unite has been involved in like the $15 dollar minimum wage campaign have been real political interventions, that have improved the lot of the working class, and that’s exciting.
I also see the links between the Unite project, and things like the Mana movement. A radical political party based in indigenous people and progressives – that just does not exist in Australia. I think having these sorts of organisations opens opportunities for working people to fight back, I’m just interested in contributing to these that and learning more.
FB: Why do you think socialists should support trade unions in general?
BP: Well, unions are organizations of workers. Socialists support workers being organised and fighting to better themselves, unions are a part of this. That being said, we as socialists support unions – not necessarily union leaderships. We need to contest for ideas in unions, because in most circumstances union leaderships are captured by people who at best have no vision for systematic change built on people power, and at worst are just interested in protecting their privileged positions. A socialist approach to unions, in my opinion, is one of supporting building a political and organizational current in the unions that can help lead a fightback.
FB: Why did you join Fightback?
BP: As an activist, I know that I get more out of myself when I’m working with others. As a socialist, I know that our power as working class people can only come collectively – we are never gonna have the millions to buy our way out of capitalism. Organisation is important so we can confront the problems we face today and overcome them.
I’ve joined Fightback for those reasons. I have known comrades in Fightback for some time, and i know they are serious comrades who want to lead the resistance to capitalism. It’s an organisation with a range of experiences that I look forward to learning from, and I feel that Fightback is a place I can contribute to.