Bob Gould, 2002

United fronts, labour parties and Marxists
A response to Shane Hopkinson

Source: Marxmail, November 25-27, 2002
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

Shane Hopkinson always adopts a calmer, more comradely, tone in his contributions than most of his fellow members of the DSP, so I’ll respond similarly.

The core of Shane’s post is the question: “Bob has suggested we need a united front with the ALP, in which case then I want to put the ball back in his court a little: exactly how, on the basis of their experience, do socialists in the ALP think that they can advance the socialist project?

My response to this question from Shane is a bit like that of the Irishman in a small country town who is asked about the route to Dublin, whose sensible response is: “Well, I wouldn’t start from here.”

Shane’s question, although phrased in a civilised way, has within it an important aspect of what is wrong with the DSP’s political orientation. The issue of a united front strategy towards Laborism, and towards the now clearly established Green mass formation, isn’t in the first instance mainly a question of what socialists in those mass organisations should do. It’s a question of what strategic orientation Marxists should adopt towards mass workers’ organisations or formations and that kind of strategic question isn’t primarily about the leaderships of those organisations, or even what socialists might do inside them.

The brutal facts of political life in Australia are these: conscious Marxist socialists are a tiny minority, and to make matters more difficult, they are located mainly among students and if they are employed, they are among what I loosely term the new social layers, not among the industrial working class.

There certainly is an ideological crisis among Marxists and this crisis has been accentuated in Britain and Australia, the two political situations about which I know most, by two interlinked things. One is the crisis and retreat of any organised left or socialist wing in the Labor Party, and the shift to the right in the leadership of the Labor Parties of those countries. The other thing that has influenced the socialist movement is the total collapse of Stalinism, physically, in most countries where it formerly ruled, and ideologically everywhere.

As Barry Sheppard et al point out in an article in the DSP magazine, Links, which I commented on in a previous post, the working class in most advanced capitalist countries now sees socialists as exotic utopians, quixotically wedded to a collapsed ideology.

The overthrow of the Stalinist regimes was not brought about by the political revolution that workers-statists like myself and many others on this list hoped for. The popular revolt against the Stalinist regimes culminated in a capitalist restoration in most of those countries. To make these matters even sharper ideologically, the shift to the right in the mass Labor Party in Australia, while it was certainly pushed very hard by Hawke and Keating, was made ideologically possible because the Communist Party, which had been the main political influence for 40 years on the official left of the ALP, transformed itself into a powerful political force campaigning against any kind of socialist project in the labour movement.

The CPA in Australia did all this from outside the ALP. Laurie Carmichael, the main and most vital ideologue of the ALP-ACTU prices-incomes accord, was for all his life a member of the Communist Party and never held a ticket in the ALP. Paradoxically, the two significant trade union officials who opposed the accord, and as a result came under enormous pressure from the trade union bureaucracy, including its CPA wing, were both members of the ALP: Jenny Haines, the nurses’ union secretary at the time, the only union official to vote against the accord at the ACTU conference at which it was adopted, and Gail Cotton, from the Food Preservers Union, who opposed the accord mark II at the ACTU congress two years later.

The shift to the right in the Australian labour movement was, politically speaking, a political crisis of the CPA and the official left in the labour movement in the first instance. Developments in Britain had similar features. The theoretical journal of the British Communist Party, Marxism Today was the ideological spearhead of the dramatic shift to the right that culminated in Blairism.

I’ve just finished reading the autobiography of the allegedly benign old Stalinist Eric Hobsbawm, who stuck to the Stalinist movement when the Russian tanks crushed the Hungarian workers’ uprising, and again when they crushed the Prague Spring. In the late 1980s, while still an ideological leader of the Stalinists — the Euro-Stalinists, as Gerry Healy used to quite properly call them — Hobsbawm campaigned in support of the witch-hunt against Militant in the Labour Party, and for the shift of the British Labour Party to the right.

My point is that the ideological crisis of the socialist movement was general to the whole left. The collapse of Stalinism in Russia and Eastern Europe accentuated this ideological crisis, including an ideological crisis among Trotskyists of all currents. Workers-staters like myself, and even adherents of the “state capitalist” tendencies, always asserted that there was something inherently progressive in the deformed and degenerated workers states or even in the “state capitalism” of the USSR, compared with western capitalism. Subsequent developments have demonstrated that there were inadequacies and flaws in both those trends of analysis, however good our intentions were.

We all underestimated the enormous damage both to the political level of the working class, and to the productive forces, that Stalinism represented. Since 1990, an aspect of the ideological crisis among Marxists has been the failure, so far, to come up with much serious analysis and theoretical development as to what a program for the transition to socialism might look like, drawing on the lessons of the Stalinist experience in the 20th century.

For this reason, all through the 1990s, I went to conferences and meetings of the far left, posing sharply the need for a discussion with two central axes: what a strategy and policy for the transition to socialism would look like on the basis of the lessons of Stalinism in the 20th century; and the appropriate strategy and tactics for Marxists in the labour movement.

In my view, Shane Hopkinson is correct to pose the question of what a socialist transition might look like, but in asking, in the first instance, socialists in the Labor Party, he’s directing the question far too narrowly, and in large part to the wrong address. The question has to be taken seriously, and with a view to ongoing analysis, inquiry and ideological work, to all Marxists. One would expect people in Marxist groups to be the first to take up this serious discussion.

The elaboration, reworking and redevelopment of what a socialist project might look like in a period of transition, will obviously have a bearing on what socialists in the Labor Party or the Greens might do, but such serious ideological inquiry is unlikely to commence in the Labor Party or the Greens. It strikes me really as quite eccentric for Shane to address that question primarily to socialists in the Labor Party and the Greens, and I really do feel like the rural Irishman in relation to Shane’s question.

Shane’s question also contains an undercurrent of the lunatic arrogance that one often gets from members of Marxian groups: the demand that the inhabitants of heterogeneous mass formations such as the Labor Party and the Greens conform to the requirements dictated by the members of the Marxist sects. The material world with which I’m familiar just isn’t like that.

The real situation in Australia is that the Marxist groups, taken together, are a tiny force in Australian society, with a certain niche among students and radical elements in the new social layers, but no significant influence anywhere else in society.

The real question that Shane should ask is a very practical one directed at the members of the Marxist groups: what strategy and practice can be adopted to move the Marxist groups out of the social ghetto in which they operate, into the organised labour movement, the working class and society at large? The question of the united front with Labor and the Greens is raised sharply, not by anything that socialists in the ALP or the Greens might do, but by the objective fact that without a united front strategy, the Marxist groups have no prospect at all of penetrating the organised labour movement and the working class.

Peter Boyle and others in the DSP leadership continually repeat the lunatic line that somehow Bob Gould is defending the Labor Party, and even on occasion defending the Greens. What I’m actually doing has nothing to do with the defence of Laborism, which has the extraordinary knack of continually reviving and reinventing itself as the dominant political force in the working class. What I’m actually doing is trying to knock some sense into the leadership of the Marxist groups about how to address themselves to the working class and develop an orientation that might, in the real world, culminate in the development of a broad, class-struggle left-wing in the labour movement, which is the absolutely necessary precondition for the socialist movement to revive.

Shane’s question, the classic DSP question, is really the old proposition of demanding that the mountain come to Mohammed, rather than Mohammed going to the mountain. In that sense, it’s a totally crackpot question. I’m not implying that Shane, who seems to be a very nice man judging by his patience and civility, even towards me, is himself a crackpot.

I don’t want to imply that the answers to serious tactical questions, like the ones that Shane poses to me, in the eccentric way of the DSP, are simple or obvious. The ideological crisis facing the socialist movement is very deep and the project of rearming the movement ideologically with a convincing view of what a socialist transitional policy might look like in modern conditions, has not seriously commenced.

That’s one of the reasons why I keep demanding the necessary public political discussion among Marxists. However, it’s obvious that the development of such a policy won’t come just from the necessary political discussion. It must come from political practice as well, and the difficulty is that political practice in these circumstances often proceeds without the ideological clarification necessary to keep up with the events.

Both the DSP and the ISO are engaged in pre-conference discussions, and without being too pompous about it, the political level of the discussion in both organisations so far is pretty limited. It’s confined mainly to organisational questions. Even the major tactical problems in the labour movement aren’t addressed very clearly in either discussion.

The broad ideological issues that I’ve just mentioned aren’t addressed at all, except that some vague idea of socialism is accepted as a given. It’s to your credit, Shane, that you’ve raised a number of these important ideological questions, even if you’ve sent the question to a secondary address.

No one else in the DSP or the Socialist Alliance, so far, has raised those questions clearly.

To be continued, with a concrete discussion of the history of socialist groups working in labour parties in Britain and Australia and some ideas about how socialists operating in a non-sectarian way in the ALP-trade union continuum, the broad labour movement, have worked and might proceed.

Part II

It’s worth considering for a moment the history of Marxist entrism in the Labor Party in Britain and Australia. The Australian Trotskyists, led by Nick Origlass, were the first group to engage in total entry, in 1942.

When I linked up with Nick’s group in the 1950s, they were quite proud of being the pioneers of total entry, and made the general point, as I do today, that the grip of Laborism was massive and hadn’t been displaced. Also, as a small group of revolutionary workers, squeezed by both Laborism and Stalinism, entering the Labor Party was a practical necessity for them to survive as a revolutionary group.

That was also the Realpolitik of the entry of all the Trotskyist groups of significance into the British Labour Party, after the dissolution of the Revolutionary Communist Party in 1949. No open party groups survived in Britain and Australia. There was no political space for such open parties in the postwar period. It’s also worth noting that these developments took place before the explosion of tertiary education in both countries and the composition of the Trotskyist groups up to the early 1960s was initially overwhelmingly autodidact proletarian.

For the sort of working-class people who made up the Trotskyist groups in Britain and Australia at that time, what I describe as the ALP-trade union continuum was their natural habitat.

Even in the crisis of 1956, when the Healy group in Britain, and to a lesser extent the Cliff group, moved agitationally into the crisis of the Communist Party, while they recruited some important intellectuals, the main people they recruited from the CP were serious communist trade unionists.

With the development of the youth radicalisation in the 1960s, another sphere of revolutionary politics opened up in Australia and Britain, a sphere of youth and student-based public leftist political agitation.

The proportion of students in the population exploded in Australia and Britain at this time, as it did in other advanced capitalist countries. The number of students in tertiary institutions in Australia has increased 20 times since 1960 and more than half the students now in high school will end up with a tertiary qualification of some sort.

A social space opened in the 1960s that made it possible for small proto- “parties”, Marxist groups and sects, directing their activity mainly at students, to enjoy relative success in building and maintaining their organisations. It’s quite possible for public agitational groups to maintain themselves in Australia today, and even to sustain the idea that they are “parties”. The DSP is the most successful group of this sort, but now it is being seriously challenged in this patch by Socialist Alternative.

By far the biggest political expression on the left, however, of the changing educational composition of the population is the emergence of the Greens as a mass current to the left of Labor, mainly located in the tertiary-educated new social layers of the population.

While the DSP and Socialist Alternative, and to a lesser extent the ISO, do all right among students, they still remain essentially tiny cadre groups (even though the DSP calls itself a party) even in the tertiary-educated sector, compared with the Greens and Labor.

These cadre groups, which in some way consider themselves to be parties, are still confronted by the enormous gap between their conception of themselves and the actual task of developing any serious influence in the working class.

A simple strategy of permanent mobilisation, mainly for demonstrations, offers no prospect at all for Marxist groups to go significantly beyond their present influence.

It’s worth noting about Britain that the Healy formation actually reached its peak of size and influence in the working class when it had a strategic orientation towards Labourism.

The Cliff grouping reached its peak of influence in the working class when it had a strategic orientation towards rank and file organisation in trade unions. The Militant group had its peak membership and influence in the working class after the other groups had left the Labour Party, in the 1960s and early 1970s, when the Militant group was well-positioned to be part of the swing to the left in the Labour Party caused by the radicalisation of the trade unions in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The exit of many leftists from the British Labour Party in the 1960s left a certain vacuum, which the Militant group filled during another conjuncture.

In current conditions I don’t advocate that any of the Marxist groups engage in total entry in either the Labor Party or the Greens in Australia. There is clearly some scope for independent socialist activity, particularly independent socialist youth organisations, nevertheless, Blind Freddy can see there will be limited scope for mobilisations like the Melbourne S11 in Australia in the next period. M1 mobilisations every year will settle into a modest routine, like Reclaim the Streets demonstrations in major cities, and will only have resonance with a rather countercultural minority.

In this respect, the “team leadership” of the DSP is clearly more realistic in its assessment of the likely scope for demonstration-type activities, than either the loyal opposition in the DSP (who seem to anticipate big anti-globalisation demonstrations like the ones in Western Europe, in Australia) or the international leadership of the ISO tendency, who also seem to expect Australia to replicate some parts of Europe in this respect.

There’s very little evidence of the likelihood of this kind of development in Australia for the foreseeable future. There will be big, peaceful antiwar mobilisations at the onset of each intensification of Bush’s war against the world, but these will tend to be large, peaceful united-front demonstrations, and they will happen in Australia mainly in association with further concrete developments in the Bush war drive.

Socialists should base their perspectives on a rational, normative assessment of likely developments. While there are elements of dramatic economic instability in the capitalist system, it would be foolish to base a perspective on the expectation of apocalyptic events, including apocalyptic economic events.

The DSP leadership and the Socialist Alternative leadership, and to a lesser extent the ISO, have a practical perspective that is in some ways quite similar. They act essentially as propaganda groups on campuses, recruiting among students, which is realistic. They have different emphases and they compete for influence and recruits. At the moment, Socialist Alternative is a good deal more successful than the DSP and the ISO on campuses in Brisbane and Melbourne.

All three groups occasionally engage in a bit of theatrical civil disobedience, which isn’t unreasonable, and they recruit to their groups. Socialist Alternative and the ISO have a more united-front perspective towards the student Laborites, while the DSP persists in its eccentric “expose Laborism” rhetoric, which it extends quite belligerently even to the youngest Laborite.

All three groups achieve certain successes. The ISO recruited a large number of students 18 months ago, but then it lost most of them. Right now Socialist Alternative is having considerable success in recruiting students.

The obvious problem is the gap between student life and the rest of social life after students leave university. The scope for movement-type political agitation outside universities is severely limited in Australia, which is still relatively prosperous and all social layers are preoccupied by economic questions that often may seem pedestrian from the socialist point of view.

In the current internal bulletin of the DSP, Ben Reid makes a despairing throwaway comment about how after a recent demonstration, the participants he was with spent most of their time discussing comparative housing prices in Sydney and Newcastle, which irritated him, because he thought they should have had their minds on higher things. Ben’s irritation reflects the social realities, and the dilemma facing Marxists in the medium term.

The DSP persists in its unbridled and stupid exposure rhetoric towards Laborism partly to insulate its members against the corruption perceived to exist in the wider world and to concentrate members’ minds on the importance of recruiting to “the party”, but such simple “party building” is really a pretty thin diet for a serious Marxist group.

The Marxmail list has been crowded with material about the overly mechanistic and disastrous “turn to industry” adopted by the US SWP, the Australian SWP and by some European Trotskyists in the 1970s and 1980s. It would obviously be dopey to press for an exaggerated industrialisation policy by revolutionary socialist groups.

Nevertheless, the working class, particularly the sections of it organised in trade unions, remains in a sense the primary sphere of activity for any Marxist formation. The common simple routine of propaganda activity, mainly focused on building the group, through recruiting almost exclusively from students and people in the new social layers, tends to distort the development of the different groups, whose memberships tend to remain isolated in the social ghetto of the new social layers.

It seems to me the DSP is the most extreme Australian example of this kind of thing. Despite the use of very radical rhetoric about aristocracies of labour, etc, it doesn’t do very much patient, long-term work directed at any section of the labour movement.

The DSP has an overblown party apparatus, with about 40 full-timers nationally in an organisation of only about 350 people. The paradox is that a mass electoral formation like the Greens, with 15 parliamentarians nationally, and 10 per cent of the votes, has an apparatus about a third the size of the DSP, which is pretty weird.

The other main Marxist groups, the ISO and Socialist Alternative, have far smaller apparatuses, and in fact their apparatuses could possibly be a little larger. But it’s better in my view to err on the side of a small apparatus, because the overblown apparatus tends to focus the attention of members on a rather artificial group internal life, promoting a sect mentality and isolation from the world outside.

These processes are accentuated by a self-reinforcing social composition. If you have a small, open “party” recruiting among students, with an increasingly rhetorical notion of being the “party of the working class”, and an exaggerated separation from the labour movement, you end up in a social ghetto, where your main competitor is the Greens, a situation frankly recognised by Ben Reid, in his intelligent and serious comment on the DSP’s situation in the most recent DSP internal bulletin. (Ben Reid argues for a DSP orientation almost entirely focussed on the Greens.)

The problem with this situation is that there’s no way the DSP can possibly compete with the Greens for hegemony and influence among the new social layers. It really becomes a question of trying to exercise external influence, which ought to be sensibly directed towards helping a Marxist current crystallise in the Greens. In due course, it seems highly likely to me that the DSP will adopt the orientation advanced by Reid because the DSP’ s history, evolution, social composition and current rhetoric all dictate such a course.

The other two propaganda groups, the ISO and Socialist Alternative, are more sensibly ambiguous between an orientation towards Labor and the Greens. Like the DSP, they also recruit mainly among students, but they don’t treat the Young Labor students as an undifferentiated reactionary mass and they show greater interest in issues and conflicts in the labour movement, so in that sense their politics are better than the deliberately non-labour-movement orientation of the DSP.

Even the two groups more oriented to the labour movement, the ISO and Socialist Alternative, don’t have a very concrete labour movement orientation outside universities.

A rough formula for Marxist group activity

I stress that I’m not preaching total entry in the ALP. The preconditions for any rational regroupment among the among the Marxist groups, which is necessary if there is to be a larger, serious socialist movement in Australia, is a major and serious public discussion of strategy between the members of all the groups and other interested Marxists.

Open socialist activities are certainly worthwhile. In this kind of difficult period, when socialist tasks are to some extent defensive, even in universities agitation should be on a rather more serious ideological plane than the rather apolitical activism of the recent past.

There should be greater emphasis on ideological engagement, a battle for Marxism and Marxist theory, some Marxist economics related to the economics of the real world, and a more robust emphasis on labour movement history and Australian and world history, approached in a Marxist spirit.

There should still be considerable activism in universities, but the ideological tasks should be given a much higher priority than they have in the recent period. In every sphere of activity, the strategy of a united front towards Laborism and the Greens is a practical prerequisite for any serious development of the Marxist groups, even in universities. A timeless, narrow emphasis on idiot “party-building” is likely to be far less successful in actually building the groups than a strategy incorporating a comradely openness towards Laborites and Greens among others on campus.

All roads lead back to a serious orientation towards the workers’ movement. An artificial “industrialisation” policy would be a piece of craziness. An artificially forced entrism into a Labor Party in which the level of activity is currently rather low would not have much success. An attempted entrism into a newly emerging Green movement that’s very prickly about entrism because of past experiences, would also not succeed.

On the other hand, a serious united front strategy towards both Labor and the Greens would rapidly acquire an audience for the Marxist groups inside the bigger organisations, if the Marxist groups behaved in a way that was halfway sane, and they did not have the madcap delusions of grandeur that particularly afflict the DSP, and give rise to the DSP’s exotic exposure strategy.

It would be useful for the Marxist groups to look soberly at the trade union movement and work out in a realistic and intelligent way several industrial environments where Marxist groups might be able to develop some influence. The Marxist groups would have to train their members as serious trade unionists, and this would obviously be particularly difficult for the DSP, which has a disastrous tradition of subordinating serious industrial activities to the iron whim of the DSP leadership.

A sensible trade union strategy is an absolute necessity for any Marxist group that wants to break out of the fairly comfortable ghetto that now exists in the new social layers. It goes without saying that the expose-Labor strategy of the DSP would have to be ditched if the DSP were to make such a turn, because this strategy is a massive obstacle to any intervention in the labour movement.