Source: Self-published pamphlet, March 11, 2002
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: by Steve Painter
A great deal has happened in the three months since the December 2001 federal election. In the election, which was dominated by the capitulation of the ALP leadership to the right-wing populist demagoguery of the Tories on the asylum seeker question, there was a small swing against Labor, a bit more than 1 per cent in two-party-preferred terms. Labor retained the overwhelming support of the organised working class, and the progressive section of the middle class, although there was a swing of backward workers from One Nation to the Liberals, and an even more pronounced swing among sections of the progressive middle class from the ALP to the Greens in revulsion against the ALP’s refugee policy.
The DSP-supported electoral formation, the Socialist Alliance, did very badly in the elections, getting approximately 1 per cent where it stood, and the left protest vote went to the Greens, who are now clearly established as the electoral party to the left of Labor. The possibility of the Socialist Alliance establishing itself as a significant force electorally is now extinguished, if it ever existed. This is underlined by the recent state election result in South Australia.
In the long-postponed February 9 election in South Australia, the most conservative Australian state, there was a swing to Labor and an important swing to the Greens as well. The Democrat vote dropped dramatically. The electorate polarised very sharply on class lines behind Labor and the Greens, on the one hand, and the Liberals and Nationals on the other.
The two Labor independents were defeated, and their seats returned to Labor, but on the other side of politics, several independents defeated the Liberals in traditional Tory seats, and two of them seem determined to lean the Labor way in parliament, giving the ALP government.
It is very instructive to look at the electoral map of the results published in The Australian on February 11. Like the electoral map in all states and capital cities after the federal elections, this map is a dramatic illustration of the class division between Liberal and Labor.
The high-income seats in the hilly, leafy suburbs to the east of Adelaide are all Liberal. The proletarian, low-income, migrant, flatter, seats to the west of the city, from West Torrens through Port Adelaide to Elizabeth and beyond, are all Labor seats. Outside Adelaide, most prosperous farming areas vote Liberal, independent or National, but Giles is a safe Labor seat, and Stuart swings between Liberal and Labor. These two seats contain, between them, the industrial cities of Port Pirie, Port Augusta and Whyalla, and, in the remote areas, fairly large Aboriginal communities.
Electoral results in Australia, despite all the confusing propaganda from both right-wing populists, and the DSP leadership, still demonstrate a dramatic contrast in class forces — sociologically speaking, between the Tory side of electoral politics and the Labor-Green side.
The organised working class, significant sections of small businesspeople and farmers, most migrants, particularly recent non-English-speaking-background migrants, most Catholics, and a section of the progressive middle class, vote Labor or Green, and the richer and more conservative sections of the middle class, the upper classes, the reactionary section of the farming community, and some backward unorganised workers, vote Liberal.
Since the controversy about Michael Thompson’s book Labor without class: The gentrification of the ALP (Pluto Press), a couple of years ago, I have done some research into the correlation between voting patterns, electoral behaviour, ethnic and religious identity, and economic and social patterns, as revealed by the useful and detailed Social Atlases published periodically by the Australian Bureau of Census and Statistics. I have distributed two papers based on my research.
These researches indicate a powerful coincidence between statistical areas with lower incomes, high trade union membership, higher numbers of “industrial occupations”, and a very high number of NESB migrants, and an overwhelming vote for the ALP.
This is true for all elections, both those in which there is a swing to Labor, and those in which there is a swing against Labor. There are other areas, like some inner city seats, with a relatively high Labor vote as well, where the social mix includes a large number of highly paid professionals, some of whom also vote Labor, but the hard core of the Labor vote is always in the type of blue-collar, migrant electorates that I have described above.
All serious sociology underlines the social and economic character of this division in voting patterns, and this division must be a vital determinant for serious Marxists in their judgments on political and industrial strategy, including electoral strategy!
Research about the changing population pattern of Australia can be used in different ways. Some demographic changes have recently been “discovered” by the embittered anti-immigration, anti-refugee (for asylum seekers) academic, Bob Birrell, of Monash University. Predictably, he has refined his long-standing mantra about Sydney to redefine the city's divisions into:
This highly disputable ideological construction, which considerably distorts an underlying demographic reality, to which I also refer, has predictably been taken up, in spades by right-wing Labor, supposedly Western Suburans demagogues such as Latham and Alex Sanchez.
These two, who used to present themselves as representatives of the Western Suburbs in general, versus the Inner Western, Eastern Suburbs, North Shore “elites”, now explicitly position themselves as representatives of outer suburban “white flight” voters. Latham and Sanchez have suddenly turned against the middle Western Suburbs because the dense mass of recent migrants there represents, to them, low-income, ethnic ghettoes, of which they strongly disapprove.
Latham associates this sharp shift in his stance with his opposition to the existing trade union influence in the ALP, as demonstrated by his rhetorical and widely publicised January 2002 letter to John Robertson attacking the NSW Labor Council over its support for asylum seekers, and criticising union influence. The bourgeois media are promoting Latham for all they are worth on this complex of questions.
In the South Australian election, the Socialist Alliance stood in one seat, inner-city seat Adelaide, where many of South Australia’s progressive middle class live.
Jane Lomax-Smith, the ALP candidate in this swinging seat, achieved a 2.5 per cent swing in the preferred vote, and won the seat from the Liberals. She got 6764 votes, as reported in Monday’s Australian. The Green, Jack Bugden, got a respectable 851 votes (5 per cent). The Socialist Alliance candidate, Tom Bertuleit, listed as an independent on the ballot paper, got 48 votes, or 0.28 per cent of the 17,078 votes counted at that stage.
In mathematical-electoral terms, 48 votes is almost the equivalent of zero if you allow for the random factor and the fact that some protest voters look for the independent on the voting paper, and Bertuleit was the only independent.
In this electorate of Adelaide, equivalent to Sydney or Grayndler in NSW, and similar electorates in other states, the Socialist Alliance got as close to zero as it is possible to get in any election. The South Australian election was held after the right-wing Tory populism about asylum seekers had abated a bit. Normal trends and class forces had begun to reassert themselves. This election result for the Socialist Alliance dramatically underlines the fact that this formation has little future electorally.
A modest 1 per cent two-party-preferred swing against Labor, which got nearly 50 per cent of the preferred vote anyway, has caused the ALP, which is a pretty serious electoral formation, to engage in several fully fledged inquiries into its electoral performance in the last federal elections. The DSP leadership, on the other hand, passes over in almost complete silence the fact that the Socialist Alliance got almost a zero vote in South Australia. This is a bit of a commentary on the lack of seriousness of the DSP leadership in its propagandistic and sterile approach to electoral politics.
The Howard government achieved re-election in a skilful way by the use of the most repellent wedge politics.
Its parliamentary program is marked by a determined attack on trade unions, and on workers’ industrial rights, and a vicious attack on civil liberties in the new powers proposed for ASIO. In fact, the government seems to have few other parliamentary proposals than these and its insistence on maintaining the right-wing populist assault on the rights of refugees, embodied in the expensive and inhuman “Pacific solution”.
So far, its major propaganda weapon in the parliament on these matters has been a barrage of rhetoric against trade union influence in the ALP, particularly the affiliation of unions to the ALP and the 60:40 arrangement in internal ALP affairs. This propaganda is aimed at creating a climate in which Blairite right-wingers like Latham on the right, and Lindsay Tanner on the left, will create chaos in the ALP by pushing for an end to, or reduction of, trade union influence in the party.
On the other hand, a rebellion of civilised people, coming from all major ALP factions, left and right, against the parliamentary leadership’s electoral capitulation to the Liberals on asylum seekers, has erupted across the country, particularly in mass meetings of ALP members called by the Wran and Hawke official inquiries into the election loss.
In three major states, large and vocal Labor for Refugees movements have been set up, mainly on a cross-factional basis. They have strong support from ALP-affiliated unions, and, in a rather surprising development, Labor for Refugees has gained considerable momentum from the deliberate act of the leadership of the Labor Council of NSW (traditionally part of the right faction) in jointly sponsoring Labor for Refugees with figures from the left of the party.
All of these developments have been pretty rapid. The revolt on asylum seeker policy in the ALP, and the question of the ALP internal set-up, particularly the rule that gives trade unions 60 per cent of conference delegates and the branches 40 per cent (60:40), have been intertwined, so far, in internal ALP discussions, particularly at the robust, vigorous and well-attended mass meetings.
Between 40 and 50 people have spoken at each meeting for five minutes each. Opposition to the asylum seeker policy has been almost universal, and most people who have spoken about 60:40 have supported the existing arrangement.
Some ALP politicians, like Latham on the right and Laurie Ferguson on the left, have vigorously defended the election asylum seeker policy, but they have been a distinct minority of those who have spoken out, and the parliamentary Labor leadership has been more cautious. A groundswell is developing for ditching the reactionary asylum seeker policy acquiesced to by the ALP during the federal elections.
On the 60:40 question, both of the right ALP sub-factions in NSW seem to be cautiously supporting 60:40, and in Victoria and Queensland, most of both the right and the left seem also to be supporting 60:40, with the exception of the Clerks Union, from the left in Victoria, obviously under the influence of Tanner. In NSW, the left is divided on the question, with the building section of the CFMEU and its allies supporting 60:40, and the Metalworkers grouping opposing 60:40.
This upheaval in the ALP, about both asylum seekers and internal ALP structure, will go on for a few months. The way the ALP works, there will have to be state conferences (the NSW one is in late May) and ultimately a federal conference, and therefore the framework exists for socialists to campaign vigorously in the next period on both these questions.
It seems obvious that we have to campaign in the ALP and the unions for a civilised policy on asylum seekers, and in defence of the affiliation of unions to the ALP, and the 60:40 predominance of unions in ALP affairs, combined with proportional representation for factions. It will be impossible for anybody in the labour movement to avoid taking a position on these questions in the next period.
As the struggle unfolds in the labour movement on all these questions, the most dangerous manoeuvring is beginning to emerge from a section of the “left” in the federal ALP caucus, a part of what is sometimes, rather arcanely, dubbed the “hard” left, on the basis of some past, essentially personal, factional divisions.
The main public expression of this manoeuvring is the position adopted by Doug Cameron, the federal secretary of the Metalworkers, who is locked in a bitter internal union conflict with Craig Johnston, the leader of the Victorian Metalworkers.
Cameron still vigorously publicly defends the late and unlamented ALP-ACTU prices and incomes accord process, and those who inflicted it on the labour movement, such as the former Communist Party leader, retired Metalworkers official, Laurie Carmichael.
At the start of the debate about union influence, Cameron advanced the completely correct proposition that trade union influence in the ALP was not the problem, and did not cause the federal election loss. However, said Cameron (representing the manoeuvring position of his allied “left cave” in the federal ALP Caucus), “60:40 was not the issue”. Cameron asserted that a reduction in the voting proportion for unions could be considered, as unions “could exercise their influence in other ways”.
Cameron has now taken this position a good deal further, adopting rhetoric threatening to disaffiliate the Metalworkers as a whole from the ALP. (In adopting this rhetoric, he obviously thinks that kind of left talk may be useful to him in his conflict with Johnston, who also advocates disaffiliation. I believe that both Cameron and Johnston misread the underlying attitude of their members on this question of union-ALP links.)
I am a pretty well total cynic about rhetorical positions adopted by some trade union bureaucrats in matters of this sort. It seems to me very likely that this confusing rhetoric and behaviour on the ALP question, emanating from the Metalworkers national leadership, is an extension of a series of manoeuvres in the federal ALP caucus, where the section of the left that the Metalworkers national leadership is associated with is trying to position itself as staunch supporters of the parliamentary leaders by brokering some kind of deal for reduction of union institutional influence. They obviously hope to gain favour from the parliamentary leadership for this service, which they think will help them in future caucus ballots etc.
Even more dangerous, from the point of view of basic union interests, and traditional socialist ideas in the ALP, are other structural changes being floated by some sections of the ALP left. Postal preselection ballots, and even primaries on US lines, are reactionary propositions indeed, as is the proposal being touted for membership postal ballots for ALP officials.
It is obvious that all ballots like this would be conducted with the full intervention of the bourgeois media, and leftist and trade union candidates would be disadvantaged by the very process, conducted as it would be in a blaze of reactionary media publicity. Do we really want Alan Jones and the Murdoch media to decide on how the ALP is run? These structural proposals would give enormously increased power to parliamentary leaders vis a vis the rank and file, and they would completely exclude trade unions from the process.
However this battle pans out, and it is by no means over yet, one thing can be predicted with certainty. If some unions do disaffiliate from the ALP in these circumstances, none of them will affiliate with the Socialist Alliance, and very few of their union officials and activists are likely to join small socialist groups.
The political crisis of the Howard government, newly elected though it is, has erupted in a very intense way. A fairly accidental series of events, surrounding the Tory appointee as governor general, Hollingworth, has produced a considerable crisis for the government in its own heartland — the affluent suburbs of the major cities — and the unspeakable tabloid media. More importantly, the fabric of lies and deceptions used by the government in its desperate bid for re-election has fallen completely apart.
The government lies about asylum seekers throwing their kids in the water have been exposed by the honourable stubbornness of the Navy personnel, who were direct witnesses or participants in the events, and who told the truth. It is not unreasonable to classify the Hollingworth crisis, the children-overboard lies, and the attempt by Liberal headkicker, Senator Bill Heffernan, to destroy Justice Kirby with the use of forged documents, as a kind of Australian Watergate.
The Howard government is in considerable strife on these questions. Its natural instinct is to lash out with diversions, and particularly Industrial Relations Minister Tony Abbott’s performance in the parliament, rabbiting on about union influence in the ALP and 60:40, is the shape of things to come from the Liberals. Do not be surprised if they dream up legislation to try to obstruct unions paying affiliation fees to the ALP. They have threatened that in the past, and they are obviously tempted to do so now.
On the Labor-Green side of politics, the Senate is looming as the arena for possible effective obstruction of Tory aims. The formidable Labor duo of John Faulkner and Robert Ray, backed up from time to time by Greens Senator Bob Brown, have used the forum of the Senate, particularly the Senate estimates committee, to expose Liberal lies on a number of questions, including the asylum seekers. They have quite properly insisted on a Senate inquiry into the new ASIO legislation, and such a Senate inquiry will create the basis for rejecting that legislation, if properly conducted.
The Labor-Green-Democrat majority in the Senate should be vigorously encouraged to conduct effective Senate inquiries into all objectionable Liberal legislation (followed by the appropriate rejection of these proposals). The Senate is looming as a very important arena for the frustration of the political aims of the illegitimate Howard government.
Such effective frustration of the Liberals’ aims depends on a popular campaign, and an effective united front in the Senate between the Labor, Green and Democrat senators, for full Senate inquiries into all objectionable Liberal proposals. Even the proverbial Blind Freddy can see that such a popular campaign requires combining an appeal to the good instincts of the Labor representatives with sensible pressure on them, rather than the relentless, mindless “exposure” of the Laborites, currently practiced by the DSP leadership.
Campaigning for Senate inquiries, which in a number of cases are quite achievable, is obviously unacceptable to the right sectarians of the DSP leadership because of the need for a united front with the Labor and Greens senators required to win such an inquiry.
The DSP leadership is currently trying to split the pro-asylum-seeker campaign in Sydney by setting up its own organisation in opposition to the Refugee Action Collective, which has successfully and effectively advanced the campaign in support of refugees up to now. The RAC also took the initiative for setting up Labor for Refugees as a group specifically directed at the labour movement.
The DSP leadership is clearly unhappy with the labour movement orientation of the RAC, and has set up its own organisation, called Free the Refugees Campaign. The DSP leadership has tried to carve out a space essentially to the right of RAC and Labor for Refugees, (covered with a bit of a left face involving occasional ultraleft demands for immediate open borders). This operation is powerfully reminiscent of the sort of thing the Stalinist CPA used to do in the campaign against the Vietnam War in the 1960s.
As part of its sectarian exercise in splitting the movement in support of refugees (to stake out territory in right field, so to speak), the DSP leadership has invented, and begun to campaign for, a Royal Commission, a demand that is reactionary in the current context as an alternative to Senate inquiries.
The DSP has begun collecting signatures for their Royal Commission into Asylum Seeker Policy. What a spurious right-wing proposal that is, in current circumstances. As Jack Lang was fond of asserting, a serious politician never holds a Royal Commission or a government inquiry unless he or she has their desired result clearly in mind, and unless they select the commissioners and design the terms of reference. Calling on the Howard government for a Royal Commission into asylum seekers, when the government will select the commissioners and design the terms of reference, is a mistaken, right-wing proposal at this time.
The attempt by the DSP leadership to raise a demand for a Royal Commission — which is a deliberate diversion from the campaign to force a major change in ALP policy on asylum seekers, from the campaign to force the government to reverse the policy, and from impending speedy Senate inquiries that will advance those two campaigns — has very sad historical overtones of the experience of the struggle against the Vietnam War in the 1960s.
In the course of that struggle, in 1967 and 1968, the Stalinist Communist Party tried to confuse the mass movement against the Vietnam War by presenting the slogan, “Stop the Bombing, Negotiate” as an alternative to the necessary demand for immediate withdrawal of Australian troops (the policy of the ALP under Calwell’s leadership until he was replaced by Whitlam in 1967), and the CP campaigned energetically in the antiwar movement for this right-wing, diversionary alternative to immediate withdrawal.
DSP national secretary John Percy knows all this, as he was a participant in defeating this Stalinist diversion, and he frequently mentions this in articles and pamphlets about the Vietnam anitwar movement. I hope he feels a twinge of guilt when he advances the equally diversionary call for a Royal Commission into asylum seeker policy.
The only context in which Howard is ever likely to accept this proposal for a Royal Commission, is if anger about the asylum seekers builds up and Senate inquiries are threatened into asylum-seeker policy.
In that context, the only one possible for a Royal Commission, the effect of a Royal Commission would be to postpone consideration of the question for many months in Howard’s hope that the lapse of time would defuse the issue. (John Minns of Socialist Alternative has written a useful leaflet on this question, which he distributed to the Illawarra Bbanch of the RAC, defeating the DSP leadership’s proposal for a Royal Commission, by an overwhelming majority.)
This DSP leadership’s Royal Commission diversion has to be considered in the context of its entrenched hostility to any united front with the Laborites. Pursuing this entrenched hostility to the united front has, among other things, taken them so far as to present an immediate proposal for a Royal Commission that can only be useful to the Liberals in defusing anger about asylum seekers. Right-wing sectarianism has carried the DSP a long way from a sensible Marxist perspective in these matters.
The leadership of the DSP has been at considerable pains to avoid allowing the Socialist Alliance to be the vehicle for a serious public discussion among socialists about the many complex historical, ideological and tactical questions that divide them, directed at, if possible, a dialectical resolution of some of these questions.
The Socialist Alliance also could have been the vehicle for serious practical negotiations to avoid unnecessary organisational divisions and conflicts in day-to-day activities, like, obviously, the split rapidly developing in the refugee movement. The DSP leadership has doggedly chosen to treat the Socialist Alliance as solely an electoral bloc between two largish, small socialist groups and a number of tiny groupings.
This electoral Socialist Alliance, the only one acceptable to the DSP leadership, has proved a failure as a serious electoral intervention, although it obviously has some propaganda value to the DSP leadership in hardening up the DSP’s members in opposition to any intervention in the broader workers’ movement, conceived in terms of any serious united front.
I have opposed the DSP leadership’s hostility to any united front with the Labor Party since it adopted that stance in 1984. Despite this important political difference, I have, however, continued to regard the DSP as an important part of the Marxist left, and at different periods I have made common cause with it on various questions and issues, and in social movements where we have had common views and interests, for instance opposition to the Gulf War, and the campaign, on which I agreed with the DSP completely, in support of East Timorese independence, and therefore in favour of Australian troops being sent to Timor.
In the short but effective movement for the necessary Australian intervention in Timor, ASIET, which the DSP has long supported, played an extremely progressive and useful role.
From time to time over the last 15 years or so I have attended the DSP’s major conferences as an observer, and I was even invited to speak at the memorial meeting for Jim Percy.
Our relations in a previous period, from, say, 1970-71, when the Percys and I split from each other, until about 1984, were considerably less fraternal, and in that period they threw me out a few times from such things as public debates between the DSP and the CPA, and it and the Communist League, which brings wry memories to my mind when I read about the DSP’s current difficulties with the Palm Sunday Committee.
I attended two sessions of the DSP’s national conference at new year in 2001, the session on trade unions and the one on student activities. I was struck forcibly, in fact appalled, by the monolithic way in which, it seemed to me, from listening to those two sessions, opposition to the united front with the ALP had become the obsessive and central axis of the DSP’s whole political strategy.
I had argued with the DSP before on these questions, but I hadn’t really appreciated how much this preoccupation had become the centrepiece around which the group is now built. Seeing the full development of this DSP leadership preoccupation in bold relief reminded me a bit of the well-known phenomenon of boiling the frog. The frog doesn’t realise anything is wrong until the water is well on the way to boiling point.
The student session at this cnference was also totally dominated by the Labor Party question. The DSP students were full of self-congratulation about how they had “exposed the Laborites” in the National Union of Students, and conducted a split away from the broad left, because that group had “capitulated” to the Laborites.
I was a bit amused when the confident, good-looking young bloke who was obviously the leader of their faction at the NUS Conference made a speech, to much applause, congratulating them all, and by implication himself, for having made the “perfect intervention” at the NUS Conference, where they split from the broad left.
Irrational hubris reigned supreme at this student session of the DSP conference. My experience in politics tells me that anyone who can delude themselves that they made the “perfect intervention” anywhere is capable of deluding themselves about almost anything, on a fairly grand scale.
This impression of the DSP leadership’s embedded right-wing sectarian orientation was sharpened when they succeeded in persuading some other Marxist groups to join them in this ill-considered electoral venture, the Socialist Alliance, the core of which was, for the DSP leadership, the exposure of Laborism, and which has now been shown definitively to be an unsuccessful exercise electorally and a strategic mistake in relation for socialists wishing to achieve any real implantation in the workers’ movement.
Attendance at the trade union session of the 2002 DSP Conference accentuated my alarm at the “boiling point” being reached in the development of the DSP leadership’s unrealistic and disruptive line in the workers’ movement.
For a start, the stupefying way that plenary sessions are conducted at DSP conferences is designed to daze the participants into agreeing with almost anything. Gough Whitlam has got nothing on the DSP leaders in the long-windedness stakes! The reporter at these DSP plenaries routinely speaks for more than an hour, and has almost unlimited right of reply to the brief discussion from the floor possible in a session conducted under these conditions.
The very party-loyal DSP internal opposition cautiously advanced the idea, in one of its contributions to the DSP internal bulletin, that the time of reporters at these sessions be cut down a bit, but on the basis of my experiences with the DSP I think the opposition has Buckley’s chance of achieving this. The generous time given to leaders to pontificate seems to be a central part of the authoritarian structure of the DSP, and is unlikely to be relinquished by the leaders. Nevertheless, the best of Irish luck to the opposition!
Sue Bull’s report was a bit curious. She spent about half an hour on a lengthy and rhetorical denunciation of the trade union bureaucracy, which, she asserted, carried Laborism into the unions as its primary function, which is a rather strange, completely unscientific, proposition. She then went on to spend another 20 minutes or so in the usual denunciation of Laborism, and developed the proposition that smashing the Laborite influence in unions was the key immediate question.
The DSP leadership routinely exaggerates the power and malevolence of the trade union bureaucracy. It verbally elevates this bureaucracy into an almost all-encompassing power, demonically preoccupied with “carrying Laborite influence into the unions”.
This chronic exaggeration of the powers of the bureaucracy obscures and diminishes the contradictory position and situation of that bureaucracy, which is that it professionally balances between the interests of trade union members, who it is supposed to represent and serve, against the pressures bearing down on the bureaucracy from the capitalist system.
If it did not make a reasonable show of representing the interests of union members, no union bureaucracy would last very long. In concrete conditions in Australia in the year 2002, the power and influence of the union bureaucracy is, in some ways, greater than in the past, but in some other ways it is weaker against pressure from the ranks.
The very decline of the institution of unionism, produced by the ALP-ACTU prices and incomes accord process, has forced the union leadership to try to mobilise the membership a bit to rebuild the unions. The bureaucracy doesn’t do this terribly well, and it is always looking over its collective shoulder at the rank and file, but the current rhetoric in trade unions is all about the so-called “organising model”.
Far from being primarily preoccupied with carrying some abstraction called Laborism into the unions, the bureaucracy is preoccupied in reality by a multitude of other concerns, including its own survival, which requires it to defend the unions against the Tory government and ,from time to time, to try to advance the interests of trade union members. In their crazed left talk about the power of the union bureaucracy, which they make sound almost infinite, the DSP leaders have forgotten the ABC of the contradictory way the trade union bureaucracy actually functions in society.
In concrete terms, in Australia at the moment, the union amalgamation process and the process of the ageing of union officials has led to a certain renewal of all ranks of the trade union bureaucracy, and a somewhat leftist development in most states, with most younger trade union officials being vaguely on the left.
Even in NSW, the heartland of the traditional right of the trade union bureaucracy, the Labor Council right is divided into two factions, which compete with each other with a certain leftism on industrial matters. This is also the context in which the NSW Labor Council right, as a whole, has taken the lead in establishing Labor for Refugees, conducted a struggle in opposition to adverse workers compensation changes, defeated electricity privatisation, and a little bit earlier, participated vigorously in the defence of the Maritime Union.
The DSP leadership’s cynical and frenzied rhetoric about the trade union bureaucracy and Laborism is actually a device to harden up the DSP membership, and to consolidate the DSP members around the special interests of the institution of the DSP, instead of any serious, concrete orientation towards implantation and organisation in the labour movement as a whole.
The rump of the Healy organisation, the Socialist Equality Party, in Australia, the US, etc, has taken this kind of exaggerated description of the power and influence of the trade union bureaucracy one stage further, for the same kind of narrow organisational reasons as the DSP leadership. In a relatively recent pamphlet, Marxism and The Trade Unions the head honcho of the SEP tendency, the American musician David North, develops the proposition that the unions were always essentially capitalist organisations anyway, and particularly in modern conditions they are totally capitalist institutions, completely integrated into the capitalist system and state.
Therefore, says North, the socialists should sever their connections with the unions, and the only thing socialists can do is directly construct the Socialist Equality Party. The current rhetoric of the DSP leadership about the malevolence and infinite power of the trade union bureaucracy only falls just short of drawing Dave North’s bizarre and separatist conclusions.)
Sue Bull then gave a 20-minute exposition on the importance of Farrell Dobbs’s four books about the Teamsters’ struggle in Minneapolis in the early 1930s, as a model to be followed in DSP union interventions. (She also said, with one her coy little smiles, that she had bought the last set of the Dobbs books they had in their bookshop, so one has to think it might be a bit hard for most of those present to check up later whether her story about Minneapolis was an accurate one.)
Bull’s account of the Minneapolis struggle was a caricature of that actual struggle as described in Farrell Dobbs’ very useful books. The practice of the Trotskyists in the Minneapolis upsurge between 1933 and 1940 was a classic example of the development of a workers’ united front in the labour movement. Vincent Dunn, Farrell Dobbs and the others, did not primarily engage in dopey denunciation of the trade union bureaucracy. They left that sterile practice to their rivals, the Third Period Stalinists.
Being, in the first instance, a group of Marxist industrial workers, mainly located in the super-exploited coal yards, the Minneapolis Trotskyists moved in an organised way, into the main Teamsters’ local where they practiced vigorously a united front tactic with the left wing of the union bureaucracy in that local, and by means of an energetic prosecution of the class struggle, combined with this united front tactic, built the local into the dominant industrial force in Minneapolis in the most non-sectarian way.
They collided with the bureaucracy from time to time, but in some circumstances they made a political and industrial bloc with sections of the bureaucracy, and even, on occasion, with the national bureaucracy of the Teamsters, in the Over-the-Road organising campaign.
Ultimately, Farrell Dobbs was even grudgingly appointed by the conservative national bureaucracy of the Teamsters Union to the national staff, because of his expertise in organising Over-the-Road truck drivers. (In all three biographies of Jimmy Hoffa that I have read, Hoffa is always quoted as expressing considerable respect for Dobbs, Dunn and the other Minneapolis Trotskyists as the inventors and pioneers of the Over-the-Road strategy, which was the key element in the dramatic growth of the Teamsters into the most powerful US industrial union.)
No abstract DSP-style bureaucracy-denunciation for the Trotskyist Teamsters in Minneapolis. Dobbs’ books actually describe a practice opposite to that of the current DSP leadership. In the course of this model and classical agitation, they also intervened energetically in a non-sectarian way inside the extremely moderate Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party. No sterile exposure of Laborism there, either.
Sue Bull’s final section was devoted to exhorting DSP members present to become active in unions, and she spelt out the policy of encouraging DSP members to get into two unions in Victoria, the CFMEU, and the Metalworkers, both of which are under attack by the employers and government.
She clearly indicated that this intervention primarily focus on the exposure of Laborism and exhorting both those unions to break from the ALP. The following questions arise from all this:
Sue Bull devoted about a quarter of an hour of her speech to a lengthy defence of the political adventure perpetrated by the DSP leadership in the Ironworkers Union in the early 1980s. She told a lengthy story about how the then impending danger of large-scale sackings in the steel industry dictated the necessity of the DSP activists challenging the leftist leadership of the Wollongong Ironworkers for all positions in the union elections.
The DSP activists, who had recently colonised the steelworks in Wollongong, as part of their then total industrial concentration policy, had only been in the steelworks for a comparatively short time. (The DSP wisely ditched the total industrial concentration policy shortly after these events.)
Sue Bull did not explain how such a propaganda exercise could in any way advance the movement. Surely, as socialists outside the DSP said at the time, in deciding to run in a union election the leadership of a socialist group must make a realistic estimate of the chance of success. In reality, the DSP candidates had Buckley’s chance, which was demonstrated by the result. They got about 20 per cent of the vote against the incumbents’ 80 per cent. Either the DSP leadership’s estimate of the electoral possibilities was deeply flawed, or the thing was a propaganda stunt — a very unwise thing to use a union election for.
The DSP leadership aren’t completely stupid in its estimates, and it was indeed a propaganda stunt, dreamed up by the dominant personality in the DSP, essentially to harden up the DSP members in industry against getting too integrated in the broad leftist current in the unions to the detriment of their total commitment to the DSP.
In the event, it proved to be a disaster all round, for the DSP, for the left in the union (which was pinned down resisting this unreasonable electoral assault rather than challenging the right in the union) and for the unfortunate DSP members who were roped into this cynical exercise.
Most other leftists, particularly, as you might expect, the leftist leadership of the Wollongong Ironworkers (who at that stage were about the most leftist union leadership in the country), became extremely hostile to the DSP because of this adventure. Most of the activists in the DSP who were pushed into this stunt left the steelworks fairly quickly afterwards, and most of them left the DSP comparatively quickly.
I could not quite understand why Sue Bull devoted so much time to proudly recounting this disaster, but maybe her purpose was to drum the idea into the heads of the DSP members present that maybe in the future, some of the leftist union bureaucrats that the DSP is currently courting, might have to be challenged in similar adventures. Who knows!
Sue Bull’s lengthy, cocky justification of the political and industrial adventure in Wollongong underlined my feeling that caution about the DSP leadership’s industrial intentions is appropriate, particularly in the current circumstances, where the Federal Government is associating its assault on unions with an assault on union influence in the ALP.
About four years ago, the National Union of Workers (NUW) in NSW, led by the redoubtable militant union leader, the late Frank Belan, disaffiliated from the NSW ALP because of anger at actions by the state Labor Government that affected the NUW. This disaffiliation was a good example of the use of disaffiliation as a traditional and well-worn tactic of pressure on the state ALP, used on a number of occasions by other unions, as an entirely normal part of the hurly burly of ALP and trade union politics to try to achieve certain entirely justifiable outcomes desired by different unions at different times.
Like all such normal pressure tactic disaffiliations, this disaffiliation lived and died in its allotted span, and Frank Belan quietly took the initiative in reaffiliating the NUW to the ALP a couple of years later, just before his untimely death.
The current flurry of threats of disaffiliation of unions, and the resignation from the ALP of several prominent union officials in Victoria, is the same sort of thing. The particular grievances of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) and the Victorian Firefighters are directed sharply at the Bracks Labor government in Victoria.
The Bracks government has ignored the interests of the Victorian Firefighters by an excessive use of unpaid or underpaid volunteer country fire fighters. The Government has also ignored the traditional input of the ETU into the process of designing new legislation for the registration of electricians.
Dean Mighell, the secretary of the ETU, is an ingenious and colourful, and possibly quite ambitious, trade union official of the left, who has up to this point, been something of a wheeler and dealer, of the better sort, in Victorian trade union and Labor politics. He is the bloke, for instance, who created the conditions for the press photo of Kim Beazley, Craig Johnston and himself, which embarrassed Beazley somewhat, but made most other people in the labour movement laugh a bit.
In my view, the current threats of disaffiliation by these two Victorian unions, have to be viewed as reasonably defensible pressure politics, in and on the Victorian ALP, to achieve the ends desired by the unions. They obviously reflect deep discontent in the unions as a whole with the Victorian ALP, which is why even the right-wing ALP unions in Victoria are trying to persuade them to stay in the ALP.
Another side of these events has to be considered. Up to now, the two unions currently threatening disaffiliation have not, to my knowledge, conducted a campaign to get the Victorian ALP conference to discipline the Bracks Government on the issues in dispute.
They have relied, up to this point, on what are, to union officials, often the normal channels, of attempting to communicate with ministers, their staffs, etc, without a public hullabaloo at ALP conferences or Trades Hall Council meetings.
Being blocked in these “normal” channels, by the arrogance of a new, extremely conservative Labor Government that ignores the traditional avenues, these unions have chosen to use threats of disaffiliation, which may seem to them more effective, in the short term, in achieving their objective of getting the ear of the Bracks Government than the more protracted, complex, although politically important process of standing the Government up at a state conference.
It seems to me unlikely that, in particular, the ETU, will proceed with the disaffiliation. It is unlikely that any unions will affiliate with the Greens, because of underlying institutional conflicts of interest with the under-consumptionist, anti-growth undercurrent that is the negative side of Green politics, and which is fundamentally unpalatable to most unions because of the essential union function of representing members’ economic interests.
It is equally unlikely that any unions disaffiliating in Victoria as part of this upheaval (if they do), will affiliate to the Socialist Alliance. This also applies to Cameron and the federal Metal Workers, in the very unlikely event that they carry out their disaffiliation threats.
The intensity of my observations, impressions and experiences at these DSP conferences is one of the reasons I commenced, and continue, my campaign of polemical pamphlets in opposition to the DSP leadership’s mistaken orientation. (I have also become steadily more infuriated at the arrogant and omniscient tone adopted in Green Left Weekly, which belts out, in a bombastic way, as if from a great height of wisdom, knowledge and scholarship, unscientific and ahistorical tactical propositions about the labour movement, and pontifications about them, without even the most cursory attempt to research and consider obvious evidence for alternative tactics.
Green Left Weekly is extremely reluctant to discuss any of these questions seriously, which is why my slightly unorthodox agitprop method of discussion and distribution, of material about these questions is both necessary and useful.)
It seems to me that the DSP leadership’s response to the ALP upheaval, since Green Left recommenced in January 2002, underlines the DSP’s qualitative transformation into a rather self-interested, rightward-moving political sect. The water is beginning to boil, politically speaking.
Commentary in Green Left on the Labor Party upheaval, by Alex Bainbridge, Pip Hinman, Alison Dellit, Peter Boyle and the ubiquitous and dominant ideological “Red Professor”, Doug Lorimer, the editor of the paper, has been uniformly dismissive and contemptuous of both the motives of those Laborites in revolt, and of any likely good coming from this revolt.
As part of its energetic publishing program, in the year 2001, the DSP reprinted the document Revolutionary Strategy and Tactics in the Trade Unions adopted by the DSP in January 1983. On pages 43 and 44, this pamphlet has the following useful formulation in relation to unions and the ALP:
In Australia, the fight to transform the unions into revolutionary instruments, must be waged in the Australian Labor Party, as well as in the unions themselves. In its form of organisation, the ALP is the party of the trade unions; in the content of its program and actions, it is the political expression of the union bureaucracy. The unions cannot become revolutionary instruments of the proletariat while the majority of the proletariat remains politically subordinate to the bourgeois program of the ALP.
In general, however, revolutionaries favour union affiliation to the ALP, while that party continues to have the allegiance of the big majority of the working class. The spurious ideal of trade union “independence” in politics is not a break with the bourgeois program of the ALP. It is a break with what is progressive in the Labor Party: the understanding that the proletariat requires its own political party, separate from and opposed to the parties of the capitalists.
It is impossible for the unions to be independent of politics. Either they adopt proletarian politics, or they support, actively or passively, bourgeois politics. Thus the task at present is not to break the organisational links between the unions and the ALP; the task is to break the unions from their subordination to the bourgeois politics of class collaboration, whether in the form of the ALP program or the daily practice of the union bureaucracy.
Revolutionary propaganda therefore argues for union involvement in and control of the activities of the Labor Party, not to reinforce the status quo, but as part of a fight to end the ALP’s subordination to the interests of capital, to change it from a political instrument of the union bureaucracy, to a political instrument of proletarian militants.
It is only along this line of simultaneous struggle against the agents of the bourgeoisie, in the unions and in the Labor Party, that the revolutionary party can increase its own influence, correctly orient the class struggle left wing as it arises, and win the real leadership of the organised and unorganised proletariat.
In general terms, the above paragraph is a clear and cogent statement of the orientation hammered out by the early Comintern in the early 1920s under the direct tutelage of Lenin and Trotsky. It is a rational and practical attempt to comprehend the strategic problems confronting Marxists in countries like Australia and Britain, where Marxists are a small minority, and mass reformist parties based on the trade unions have the electoral allegiance of the overwhelming majority of the organised working class.
It is an unexceptionable statement of the position in terms of the tradition of the Comintern, before Stalinisation, but it is a rather succinct and useful short statement of that position, despite its slightly omniscient tone. There is no question it is the spirit of the understanding that Lenin and Trotsky had of those matters, expressed in Australian conditions. It would be superfluous of me to attempt to rewrite it in my own words. Give or take a few phrases, and the know-all style characteristic of the DSP, I basically agree with the thrust of the document.
In attempting to explain the change from the united front orientation of the DSP’s 1983 document, Doug Lorimer says, in the introduction to the pamphlet (dated 1995):
The DSP’s previous characterisation of the ALP, which it had inherited from the Trotskyist movement’s analysis of social democratic parties around the world, was based on the determination of the class character of a political party not only by its program — its real aims and the means by which it seeks their attainment — but also by the class composition of its membership and supporters. This approach, however, represents a departure from the Marxist method of analysing social phenomena …
Thus, for Marxists, the class character of a political party is not determined by the class that supports it at any particular time, but by what class the party supports, ie, by the party’s program, by its real aims and basic policy. From this point of view, the only correct one for Marxists, the ALP is not a workers’ but a bourgeois party.
This piece of pompous Lorimerism is the crucial attempt at some sort of theoretical justification of the DSP leadership’s change in strategic orientation towards the unions and the ALP. The real context of the change was a crude and pragmatic brainstorm by the late Jim Percy, the dominant personality in the DSP until his death, that a tremendous opportunity had been opened up for the DSP by the large vote for the Nuclear Disarmament Party in the 1984 federal elections, and to a lesser extent by an apparent leftward shift by the Democrats.
Changing the DSP’s basic orientation in relation to the unions and the ALP because of these short term tactical considerations, required some theoretical justification. No doubt Jim turned to Doug and said, “Go and find us some quotes from Lenin and some theory to explain this turn,” which Doug then did.
After the disastrous collapse of the DSP’s intervention in the Nuclear Disarmament Party, the same “theoretical” reinforcement was useful during the period of the DSP leadership’s attempt to form a New Left Party, firstly with the thoroughly Stalinist SPA, and subsequently with the still essentially Stalinist CPA. A sectarian attitude towards Laborism was no obstacle to an attempted regroupment with these formations out of the Stalinist tradition. In fact, a certain mindless hostility to Laborism was extremely useful to a project of regroupment with these Stalinist formations, in their then condition of advanced decay.
A careful reading of the 1985 DSP pamphlet Labor and the Fight for Socialism and the Jim Percy Memorial book, Traditions, Lessons and Socialist Perspectives, graphically illustrate my general point about how the DSP made its big political change in tactics towards the Labor Party.
In particular, the rather self-important meanderings of Jim Percy, interspersed with a trawling round for quotes from Lenin (probably dug up by others) illustrates very clearly the point that Jim had a brainstorm to make a major tactical turn and the theoretical justification was cobbled together after the event.
All Jim’s pompous rhetoric, about “how near we were to going off the rails, etc, etc”, by not reversing the united front tactic towards Laborism, until they were saved (by inference, by Jim’s wisdom in such matters) can’t disguise the reality, quite clear in the two pamphlets, that the tactical decision was made first, and the justification was cobbled together after the event by an earnest picking through the 45 volumes of Lenin to find whatever quotes that could be used, with a bit of stretching, squeezing, and ignoring of context, to justify the turn.
Lorimer’s two paragraphs are, from a Marxist point of view, thoroughly misleading. He attributes the emphasis on the sociological make-up of political parties and trade unions, as something specific only to the Trotskyist movement and in a slightly dishonest way attempts to counterpose it against Marxism and Leninism.
He is careful not to quote any sources when he makes his attribution to “Marxism”. If pressed, I don’t doubt that Lorimer can find the odd quote from Lenin, wrenched out of context, to justify a tactical approach to workers’ organisations based on their formal written program. That wrenching out of context bits from Lenin, is, after all, the core skill required of the craft of a Red Professor — Lorimer’s lifelong profession.
The united front tactic, directed at reformist workers’ organisations, including reformist political parties, was the core strategic orientation of the early Comintern before the Stalinisation of that body, and is the main strategic legacy we have from Lenin and Trotsky in relation to tactics in the workers’ movement. It is at the centre of the documents of the first four Congresses of the Comintern, and it is also at the core of Lenin’s classic statement on strategic questions, Left Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder. The reason for the preoccupation of Lenin, Trotsky and the early Comintern with this tactic was that the working class and the workers’ organisations, trade unions and even reformist parties, were, for them, one of the primary spheres of activity for serious revolutionaries who aimed at a socialist revolution led by the working class. (I’ve reprinted at the end of this document Australian socialist leader Jock Garden’s speech to the 1922 Congress of the Comintern, which has considerable bearing on this question.)
Lenin, Trotsky and the Comintern did emphasise the Communist movement having complete clarity about its own program, and they are very sharp against accepting the Marxist credentials of individuals and groups who pass off anti-Marxist political positions as appropriate in Marxist organisations, and you can find many quotes that emphasise the importance of program in this context.
These are obviously the Lenin quotes on which Lorimer will rely, if pressed, to justify his position, because there are no quotes from Lenin that can be used reasonably to oppose the tactic of the united front. It is a blatant political trick to use Lenin quotes applicable to the program of the Marxist party itself to attempt to buttress an argument for ditching the united front directed by Marxist parties at mass reformist workers’ organisations.
In the important sphere of tactics towards reformist organisations it was always the proletarian social composition of the supporters of those organisations that was dominant for the early Bolsheviks, and dictated the united front tactic.
Lorimer’s spurious attempt to make the ostensible program of reformist workers’ organisations the critical determinant in Marxist strategic orientation towards them, and his rejection of the importance of their sociology, is a thoroughgoing anti-Marxist and reactionary revision of the teachings of Lenin and Trotsky, and the practice of the early Bolsheviks.
It is a set of political formulas drawn squarely from the ideology and practice of Third Period Stalinism, and Lorimer’s attempt to ascribe solely to “Trotskyism” the sensible united front tactical orientation of the early Bolsheviks, primarily towards the organisations of the working class, is a full-blooded piece of confusionism directed at reinforcing the narrowest organisational interests of the DSP leadership, conceived in the most sectarian way.
The ideological three card trick perpetrated by Lorimer concerning the importance of the sociology of workers’ organisations, versus the importance of their written program, can be seen in bold relief when you examine the DSP leadership’s attitude to programmatic questions in other contexts. In the pamphlet, The SWP and the Fourth International, Lorimer and Jim Percy explicitly polemicise against giving much significance at all to the programs of revolutionary organisations in the Third World, like the PRD in Indonesia, etc, etc, etc, when making combinations and working with them.
On page 8 of the Green Left Weekly of February 13 is a lengthy article, Cracks showing in the major parties, discussing the refugee crisis, and the response to that crisis of what Alex Bainbridge calls the “two capitalist parties”.
He projects the idea that there is a more or less equal, although small, chance of shifting either of these parties in a civilised direction on refugees. This equals sign is a particularly stupid expression of the DSP leadership’s orientation.
As I have demonstrated above, the sociology of the two electoral parties in Australia is completely different, and opposed in class terms. To treat them as equivalent “capitalist parties” is both misleading and stupid for a Marxist.
The overwhelming majority of the people that Marxists would want to influence are presently on the Labor side of this class divide in electoral politics. The rhetoric about two equivalent “capitalist parties” is both unscientific, and an obstacle tactically, to any attempt to influence most people among these classes and groups that Marxists want to influence, although it might have some impact on the sort of leftist members of the progressive middle class, who mainly vote for the Greens.
It is particularly dangerous concerning refugee policy. The rapid development of the crisis on the ALP side of the divide reflects the class composition of the ALP electorate, and the much tinier uneasiness on the Liberal side of the electoral divide reflects the much more reactionary social composition of the Tory electorate.
One of the featured speakers at the coming DSP conference is Matt McCarten, the leader of the left wing in the breakaway left labor party in New Zealand, the Alliance.
McCarten is locked in a struggle with the right wing of the Alliance about tactics to be followed in the Coalition government with the Labor Party, which governs New Zealand. McCarten has been struggling in an extremely principled and ingenious way for a more leftist stance by the Alliance in the Coalition government.
McCarten and his leftist colleagues, however, correctly and scientifically, don’t use any extravagant, generalised rhetoric about either the New Zealand Labor Party, or the right wing of the Alliance, being “rotten capitalist parties” and “traitors to the working class”. In coverage of New Zealand affairs the DSP leadership and Green Left Weekly don’t use that kind of rhetoric either, although, if it’s applicable in Australia, it also ought to be applicable in New Zealand, as the political circumstances and the relationship of class forces in Australia and New Zealand are as parallel as you can get between countries.
It is only when they discuss reformist workers’ organisations in Australia that the DSP leadership suddenly elevates the importance of the formal program over the sociology of these organisations for the pettiest and narrowest of organisational reasons, based on the short-term interests of the DSP as an institution. This kind of thing is most clearly expressed in Alison Dellit’s response to Leon Parissi in Green Left Weekly.
I don’t like attacking Alison Dellit much, because I know her slightly, and she is a young and serious Marxist intellectual (working flat-out, in a dedicated way, full-time on the paper, on obviously, a lowish allowance). She is not particularly sectarian in her behaviour, and she even flattered me once by showing her parents (from out of town) my bookshop, as one of the sights of Sydney.
Nevertheless, Alison’s contribution to the discussion of these questions is a vintage version of the views, obviously held at the rank and file level in the DSP, on the basis of the fairly systematic “educational” activities of the DSP leadership. Pretty well everything in Delitt’s contribution on page 8 of GLW of February 13, 2002, starts from the narrowest organisational interests of the DSP and the Socialist Alliance.
She says quite baldly:
If Parissi really believes that socialist unionists should argue for continued union affiliation to the ALP, then the logical step would be to argue against socialist unionists individually leaving the ALP and joining the Socialist Alliance.
Elsewhere she says:
If we do not argue for unions to disaffiliate from the ALP, how can we seriously argue that the Socialist Alliance is worthwhile? Should we be arguing that the unions pay money in affiliation fees to a pro-capitalist outfit rather than give it to pro-working class electoral formations?
The sectarian self-interest of the DSP leadership could not be stated any more clearly than that. (It’s interesting the recurrent theme in the DSP leadership’s propaganda against trade union affiliation to the ALP, relating to the money paid by unions to the ALP. The DSP leadership seems obsessed by the idea that somehow they can persuade the unions to transfer that affiliation money to the Socialist Alliance or the DSP. Of all their hopeful tactical obsessions, that one is the strangest and the least likely to happen anytime in the foreseeable future.)
Alison Delitt demands that anyone on the left leave the Labor Party. She spells out in slightly gentler words the crude “alternatives” constantly posed by the DSP leadership: either be a class traitor and support or be in the Labor Party, or join the revolution by joining the DSP and the Socialist Alliance.
In real life, a very large number of workers and middle-class people who support, or are in, the Labor Party, evolve in a different way if they move to the left. Most of them initially, and many, such as myself, for a very long time pose the question in terms of fighting in the labour movement, which includes the unions and the Labor Party, for a radical and socialist policy.
In practice, very few people in the workers’ movement will shift over to Alison’s small sect, no matter what emotional blackmail and radical rhetoric that small sect uses. The effect of all this rhetoric is to make most people in the workers’ movement, on the left, who don’t respond to this rhetorical appeal to join the DSP (as the only honourable possibility for socialists), to become very hostile to the DSP.
The DSP leadership’s sectarianism towards the labour movement, actually accentuates its own self-isolation in the labour movement.
The problem with the DSP leadership’s orientation, which Alison expresses here so crudely and deliberately, is that all past history in the Australian workers’ movement, and all recent history as expressed in the recent round of elections, demonstrates the impossibility of displacing the ideological and electoral grip of Laborism in the way the DSP leadership now operates.
In the real world there is not the slightest likelihood that, if the current campaign to push unions out of the ALP were to succeed, (which is by no means inevitable), that any of these unions would transfer their allegiance to the Socialist Alliance. On the basis of all the available indicators, it just won’t happen.
The DSP leadership confuses the issues that are immediately presented in the labour movement, and tries to justify their fierce opposition to a united front tactic by very leftist utterances against “entrism” by Marxists in the Labor Party.
As a long-standing individual Marxist in the Labor Party, I am not advocating that the DSP as an organisation should move into the Labor Party. That is pretty unlikely anyway, and in current circumstances, undesirable. The reason the DSP leadership conducts its frenzied literary agitation against Laborism is obviously because it considers that this is a short-term recipe for recruiting some younger people, mainly students, sociologically part of the new social layers, or the progressive middle class, directly to the DSP on the basis of hostility to Laborism.
This hostility of some of the youth to Labor has a mixed and contradictory background. It includes some healthy opposition to right-wing Labor betrayals, but it also includes some rejection of the idea of being part of a blue-collar labour movement, which the media constantly caricatures and portrays as something of no use or interest to young people.
No argument by anyone on these matters is likely to change the trajectory of the DSP leaders in the short term, because recruiting from youth in universities, in the way they do, with a deliberate emphasis on the fact that the DSP is something quite different to the traditional labour movement, is their professional device for renewing the membership of the organisation to replace those who go through the revolving door as they tire of the internal atmosphere of a rather isolated, standalone political sect, and move on to other things in life.
This self-perpetuating tactic by the DSP leadership, however, has a flip side. Many members of the DSP recruited in this way have very little knowledge and understanding of what the workers’ movement is really like, which is why they often carry on in a careless and thoughtless way in everything relating to the traditional workers’ movement. This tactic also has a lot to do with the ongoing tendency of the DSP to have mainly a student and petty bourgeois social composition.
The issue is not entrism but the united front. While the DSP leadership prosecutes its extravagant verbal hostility to the labour movement, it will inevitably remain, in practice, isolated from that movement, with very little influence there.
By way of historical comparison, the Stalinist Communist Party of the 1950s, 1960s and the 1970s, carried big political baggage from the influence of high Stalinism, which was a pretty exotic phenomenon in Australia. After 1952 it did have direct influence over a few leading personalities in the Labor left, and a few rank and filers, and these people were fairly critical organisers in the struggle against the Grouper right-wing in the ALP.
Nevertheless, the influence of the CP on the Labor left, which was very substantial, considerably bigger than that of the anti-Stalinist left (although this had some influence as well), was exercised mainly by the influence of CP trade unionists outside the Labor Party in their united front work in the unions and in community organisations.
The very substantial influence of the left in the labour movement depended in those days on the fact that both the Stalinists and the smaller number of anti-Stalinist Marxists (who actually did practice some organised entrism), avoided generalised hostile anti-Laborist rhetoric. One has only to revisit the past in this way for the contrast with the current bizarre tactics of the DSP leadership to be thrown into bold relief.
If one takes, as an example, the great upsurge against the Vietnam War in the 1960s, the fact that revolutionary socialists like myself were active in the Labor Party, and made quite a conscious bloc with the ALP leadership of Arthur Calwell against the war, gave enormous momentum to our agitation in the streets and society at large.
The fact that our rivals in the antiwar movement, the Stalinists of the CPA, also practiced a united front tactic, of their distinctive Stalinist sort, towards the Labor Party, actually aided them considerably in increasing their influence in the antiwar movement and in the labour movement and society as a whole.
The big questions of tactics and demands in the antiwar movement were fought out both in that movement, and inside the ALP, and all this contributed to the most far-reaching and successful antiwar agitation Australia has ever seen.
The upsurge in opposition to the Howard government’s reactionary and racist asylum seeker activities has led to a rather broad initiative to have a peaceful Palm Sunday march, mainly focussed on the refugee issue, reviving the Palm Sunday marches that lapsed a few years ago.
The meetings to organise this march were called by invitation only, with the DSP (and some other organisations, by implication) excluded. The initiative for excluding the DSP came from the Search Foundation, the former SPA renamed CPA, the CPA-ML, and a couple of individuals from the Progressive Labor Party. It is a bit ironic that two of these organisations, the Search (the ghost of the CPA), and the SPA-CPA, are organisations with which the DSP leadership conducted earnest and extremely diplomatic negotiations for fusion in the late 1980s, during the period of the DSP’s compromising attitude to Stalinism a la Gorbachev.
This exclusion of the DSP and others must be opposed strenuously. The picture of wraith-like relics of Stalinism’s past: tiny, ageing organisations with almost no youth, attempting to exclude the DSP, no matter how provocative the DSP might be, is really quite bizarre.
In proposing this exclusion, the man from the Search cited as justification for his action, among other things, that DSP speakers at antiwar and anti-racism rallies, were notorious for their constant public attacks on the ALP from those platforms. He also said in passing, that he did not want the organising meetings to be like the organising meetings for the Moratoriums in the 1960s, when all political points of view on the left were present, expressed their opinions, and had input into the nature of the Moratorium demonstrations.
The Search man’s remarks are quite revealing, when you consider the issues thrown up by this exclusion. In the 1960s, such exclusions from organising committees, in the turbulent mass movement of the Moratorium, proved quite impossible, although many Stalinists desired such exclusions. (The very first small national meeting to float the idea of the Moratorium was called without many of the assorted youthful and leftist groups in various cities being invited, but this half-hearted attempted exclusion collapsed almost immediately, and the organisation of the Moratoriums proceeded through big, colourful, interesting, raucous, all-inclusive sponsors’ meetings.)
None of the revolutionary socialists who contested with the CP for hegemony in the enormous 1960s mass movement were silly enough to adopt the stupid rhetoric adopted these days by the DSP leadership against the rest of the labour movement. The antiwar movement was much bigger and more diverse, and the revolutionary socialists, who adopted in those days, a united front tactic towards Laborism, were so well entrenched in the movement that the Stalinists, although they desired it, were in no position to successfully exclude the anti-Stalinists.
It is a very sad commentary on current circumstances that something like the exclusion of the DSP can even be attempted, let alone succeed. The developments in the Palm Sunday Committee ought to persuade the DSP leaders to consider the practical consequences of their constantly increasing, and extravagant, rhetoric against the labour movement.
I am totally opposed to this Stalinist exclusion. My opposition to it is sharpened by the fact that it is clearly not just directed at the DSP but also at other groupings on the far left that don’t have the sectarian orientation of the DSP. I have a deep suspicion, politically, of the Stalinists who initiated this exclusion, particularly when I read in the CPA-ML newspaper, Vanguard, a defence of this exclusion combined with a little homily to the Palm Sunday Committee that the demonstration should concentrate on “attacking US imperialism” rather than concentrating on the immediate question of the day — the Howard government’s attack on refugees.
Nevertheless, the DSP leaders are not fools. They can hardly be surprised when assorted Laborites, Catholics, Greens, Friends of the Earth, and others, whom they berate on a day-to-day basis, go along with the exclusion. (I’m told that, when the DSP put their case against the exclusion on the Indymedia website, it was quickly followed by a rush of about 20 comments from individuals and organisations who had collided with the DSP in the past, most supporting the exclusion. This does not lead me to support the exclusion; as I’ve said, I’m bitterly opposed to it, but the mixed response to the exclusion ought to make the DSP leaders reassess the impact that their chronically sectarian posture has on many of the people and groups they encounter in the course of their activities.)
The DSP leadership seems to be responding to this exclusion in an unwise way, consistent with their current rhetoric, by focussing on the fact that representatives of Labor for Refugees did not oppose the exclusion. They would be much wiser to concentrate their fire on the shadowy Stalinist forces that initiated the exclusion, and appeal to the democratic sentiments of the assorted Laborites, and others who were dragged into the exclusion move. This exclusion should be opposed by all serious socialists, and the immediate question is how to achieve its reversal without a damaging public brawl, particularly in the movement in support of refugees.
In passing, it’s worth noting that quite a few individuals from around the old CPA have started turning up in the ALP. Their politics are now on the extreme right of any socialist continuum, and one individual of this CPA background is energetically circulating a document on the future of the labour movement that, in all essentials, agrees with the political program of Mark Latham.
Predictably, most of these former CPAers are vocal advocates of reducing union influence in the ALP. The sudden presence of these politically demoralised, rightward-moving ex-Stalinists in the ALP is an additional small factor in the build-up of pressures to move the ALP to the right. This underlines the importance of conducting an energetic campaign in the ALP for a reinvention and development of the socialist project in modern conditions, which must include the defence of trade union predominance in the party.
The extravagantly hostile posture towards the labour movement, into which the DSP leadership have psyched themselves, has carried them a long way from the possibility of exercising the kind of influence on events that both the much smaller number of anti-Stalinist revolutionaries, and the Stalinist CPA (on the institutional influence of which, the DSP sometimes aspires to model itself), had in the 1960s.
The history of the ALP is studded with many small breakaways and electoral revolts, and four large ones. The large ones were:
The most successful recent split was local leftist and football hero Phil Cleary’s winning electoral ambush of the ALP in Hawke’s old electorate of Wills, in a by-election after Hawke left parliament. This seat returned decisively to the ALP in the subsequent federal election, Cleary being defeated.
Another breakaway was the highly respected long-time leftist Queensland Labor Senator George Georges, who ran in a federal election as a Labor Independent protesting against the right-wing policies of the Hawke and Keating governments. His vote as an independent Laborite was tiny.
A similar thing happened with Bill Hartley’s breakaway Industrial Labor Party in Victoria, in a federal election. Its electoral vote was very small, despite the support of several unions.
The same thing happened to John Troy in Western Australia, a well-respected leftist in Fremantle, who tried his luck against the ALP machine after losing his ALP pre-selection after a term in parliament. He did somewhat better than Hartley or Georges, but was defeated and his breakaway party withered.
The most determined breakaway in recent times was that of George Petersen on the South Coast of NSW, precipitated by his expulsion from the ALP (because of his parliamentary vote against the first round of destruction of the Workers Compensation system, after more than 20 years as a Labor MP). His result was better than John Troy’s, and he might even have won the seat if he hadn’t been caught in a swing against the Unsworth government that inflated the Liberal vote in his safe Labor seat to the point that the Liberal got ahead of Petersen on the primary vote. After that defeat, George Petersen’s Illawarra Workers Party withered away, and many of his main supporters, which included the leadership of the Wollongong Ironworkers Union (now the AWU), went back into the ALP.
There is a large experience of leftists, rightists and other ALP breakaways running against the ALP in municipal elections, and they quite often have some success in this arena. (This is the one sphere where Socialist Alliance candidates might, in some circumstances expect to achieve electoral success. The problem with this arena is that, from the point of view of the DSP, it is difficult to operate in because success in municipal elections requires almost total commitment to local activities for the candidate to become a local identity. This tends to contradict any concentration on the work and identity of the DSP as a distinct entity, which is usually the primary preoccupation of the DSP.)
All the above experiences of ALP breakaways tend to underline the fact that, in current Australian circumstances, the grip of Laborism over the working class, the labour movement, and a large section of the progressive middle class has a very large, powerful and durable tradition. Releasing this strong grip by the pure propaganda of small socialist groups, including occasional electoral propaganda, is an impossibility.
Due to past defeats, and the reduction in density and influence of trade unionism, the labour movement in Australia is in an extremely defensive situation.
The circumstances require a defensive remobilisation of the workers’ movement. In the current circumstances, disaffiliation of unions from the ALP will not lead to any surge forward, it will only lead to demobilisation and depoliticisation. It is idealist, metaphysical nonsense to raise the chimera of the immediate probability, or even possibility, of the working class transferring its allegiance directly to the Socialist Alliance.
This idea is sectarian fantasy, an illusion. Even in conditions of mass upsurge, the grip of reformist mass organisations has rarely been broken by the direct electoral transfer of the allegiance of the working class from a very large, old organisation, to a very small, new one.
The only mass communist parties in countries where there had previously been mass Social Democratic parties, were formed from major splits within the existing Social Democratic formations, rather than a mechanical transfer of allegiance to a tiny new organisation, no matter how revolutionary or orthodoxly Marxist. It was because of this strategic reality that the early Comintern and Lenin and Trotsky formulated the united front tactic towards mass workers’ organisations in the first place.
For Alison Dellit and the DSP leadership to develop any genuinely Marxist argument for the strategy they advocate, it is necessary for them, not just to preach in a hysterical, moralistic way the desirability of having a genuine Marxist workers’ party, but to outline realistic strategies for how that might be achieved.
From that point of view it is impossible to escape the continuing necessity for the application in Australian conditions of the united front tactic pioneered by the early Bolsheviks. Such a tactic may not offer a get-rich-quick solution to the problems facing Marxists in the workers’ movement, but the alternative advanced currently by the DSP leadership is, in practice, to assist the project of the bourgeoisie of shifting the labour movement to the right by driving the unions out of the ALP.
If this bourgeois project succeeds, which in my view is by no means certain, the terrain on which socialists will have to operate will be shifted dramatically to the right and make the achievement of effective socialist organisation in Australia considerably more difficult.
Many people, including the DSP leadership, after their historical pretensions have been debunked, ask variants of the above question. It is an entirely reasonable question. I have been at pains to refute the confusing way that the DSP leaders use historical references to justify their sectarian practice, and this has been useful to me in researching and describing the context and practice of the united front strategy, as developed by Lenin and Trotsky.
Historical research, even illuminating historical research like mine, should, however, never be used to imply that we can exactly repeat tactics that worked in the past, for the obvious reason that the whole network of social relations and circumstances changes constantly. As sensible historical materialists we should never expect to use an exact template from the past.
Nevertheless, we do study the past to learn from it, and in this instance we have to make a practical judgment of what the new circumstances are, how much of the traditional united front tactic is still applicable, or if it is still useful in some ways how it should be modified to take account of new objective circumstances.
The most obvious aspect of these new circumstances is the many modifications and changes in the details of the class structure of world capitalism and Australian capitalist society. There is no doubt that many new social layers have emerged that are somewhat different to the class formations of past capitalist society. The question is, how does the emergence of these new social layers affect the structure of politics, and what tactical considerations for Marxists flow from these changes.
A mass Labor Party based on the unions,still exists, with considerable support from the progressive middle class, and is the alternative, in two-party-preferred terms, to the conservative Liberal Party in elections. This division in politics and society has been modified by the emergence of the Greens, as a leftist expression, and the Democrats, as a rightist expression, of the new social layers.
The sheer fact that the Labor Party still exists as the mass political expression of trade union interests, and that the map of electoral results is still a map of class division in Australian society, dictates in my view that Marxists ought still to practice a united front towards the mass Labor Party, and from this point of view a detailed study of the history of the united front, and its ebbs and flows, is useful and instructive.
Due to the alienation of sections of the youth and the progressive middle classes from this mass Labor Party, and the emergence of the Greens as the left expression of these changes, a secondary united front strategy by Marxists towards the Greens is clearly indicated from current circumstances.
This secondary united front towards the Greens, which is a political necessity, presents, in some ways, the greatest problems. A part of some strains of Green ideology is animosity to all economic growth, and even (on the part of some members of the new social layers, from whom the Greens support is largely drawn), animosity to the traditional organised working class, particularly its blue-collar component.
The particular social features of some sections of the new social layers are, to some extent, badges of identity in some Green circles. There is a certain social pressure in some of these groups to be a vegetarian (or even a vegan) and so on.
Nevertheless, taken as a whole, there is no question that the bulk of those voting for the Greens are to the left of Labor on most issues, which is why a united front tactic towards the Greens is appropriate. But it would be blind of serious Marxists to underestimate the potential conflict between some sections of the traditional labour movement, and some sections of the Greens and the new social layers. These are problems to be overcome in the course of struggle.
From this point of view, the unrealistic attempts of the DSP leaders to pose their tiny organisation as a serious electoral alternative to either the mass Labor Party or the significant Greens electoral formation, is an enormous mistake. Small socialist organisations can have a substantial influence on events, but that is, in my view, really conditional on them adopting a flexible, united front strategy towards Labor and the Greens.
In addition to this, the trade union movement is still the most basic and primary field of work for serious Marxists. In this context in particular, the development of a united front towards Laborism is still a tactical imperative for Marxists, despite the emergence of new social layers.
A serious public discussion of the question of the united front would be a useful addition to the program of the coming Easter conference of leftists initiated by the DSP.
The questions I have discussed in this document have been thrust to the forefront in the workers’ movement by the campaign of the bourgeoisie to smash the link between the unions and the Labor Party.
It is impossible for the DSP leadership to evade a serious and responsible public discussion on these questions. I make the following proposal to the DSP: at the Easter Conference, at least have a serious public debate on the question of the united front in the labour movement, with, say, myself, someone from the ISO, Phil Sandford, and a couple of people from the DSP, maybe Doug Lorimer or Peter Boyle, and Alison Delitt. Why not have such a responsible debate?
The speech of Jock Garden, then secretary of the Labor Council of NSW, and major leader of the Australian Communist Party, to the 1922 Congress of the Comintern in Moscow, was printed in the Report of the Moscow Congress published by Martin Lawrence, London, 1923, a very battered copy of which I have. The session on the trade union question was held on November 20-21, 1922. The chairman was Comrade Neurath, and the speakers were Comrades Lozofsky, Clark, Lansing, Kucher, Heckert, Sturm, Taska, Lauriden, Pavlik, Garden and Rosmer. Jock Garden’s speech is on pages 280-282.
This speech is very informative about the united front strategy of the Bolsheviks at that period. Jock Garden was a great performer, and one wonders what the Comintern delegates made of his grandiose exaggeration of the (then actually quite substantial) influence of the new Australian Communist Party in the trade unions.
Developments later in the 1920s damped down Garden’s delusions of grandeur a fair bit. Nevertheless, the significance of the speech and the discussion of which it was a part, is this: no Bolshevik leader challenged Garden on any of his statements, and Garden’s exposition of the strategic conception of the united front that he was talking about for Australia was fully in accord with the orientation elaborated by Lenin, Trotsky and the other Bolsheviks on tactics in the workers’ movement.
Obviously the Bolshevik leaders, not being too directly informed about circumstances in faraway Australia, other than from Garden and his associates, inclined to give Jock the benefit of the doubt on his grandiose claims about the influence of his still-small Communist Party, but his line of march was that espoused by the early Comintern. After making this speech, Garden was elected to the Comintern executive at the end of the congress, which underlines the general orthodoxy of his approach in the Comintern at that time.
So much for Lorimer’s misleading attribution of the united front strategy towards mass labour movements solely to the later Trotskyist movement. The circumstances surrounding the united front tactic and Garden’s speech at the Comintern congress are discussed in Greater Than Lenin? Lang and Labor 1916-1932 by Miriam Dixson, Ray Markey’s history of the Labor Council of NSW, Frank Farrell’s International Socialism and Australian Labor and Stuart Macintyre’s The Reds. Lenin’s book, Left Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder, sets the political context of the united front tactic squarely in place. Two issues of the journal Labor History, which I have in my bookshop at the discount price of $5 each, have articles by Barbara Curthoys and Beris Penrose, illuminated by new material from the Comintern archives describing the Stalinisation of the Australian Communist Party and the imposition on it of the Third Period strategy in the period 1929-32.
As Jock Garden indicates in his speech, the old Bolshevik Solomon Lozovsky was the Russian expert on trade union matters. He was of Jewish origin, and had been active in unions overseas in his exile from Russia as a revolutionary on the run.
He had been, for a period, secretary of the Hatters Union in France. He very soon became the Secretary of the Red International of Labor Unions, the Comintern’s labour movement organisation. The Labor Council of NSW affiliated to the RILU, and under Garden’s leadership it also affiliated to another Comintern organisation, the Pan Pacific Trade Union Secretariat, which mainly covered colonial countries in Asia, and the Russian trade unions.
It had, at different periods, its headquarters in Shanghai and Vladivostok. These affiliations were, for the time, a very courageous initiative by Garden and right-wing unions in Australia, and Australian Tories went hysterical about both, pointing out the obvious, that such affiliations were an implicit repudiation of the White Australia Policy. In their propaganda against the affiliation of the Sydney Labor Council and the ACTU to the RILU, Australian Tories made constant antisemitic references to Solomon Lozovsky’s Jewish origins.
The connection of Garden and the Labor Council with the RILU and Lozovsky became important later, during the Stalinisation of the Comintern, and eventually of the Australian CP.
Lozovsky generally adapted to the Stalin regime in the Soviet Union, but as secretary of the RILU he retained a certain limited independence, and discretely resisted the worst excesses of the Third Period line in the labour movement.
He sent his son-in-law to Australia as a RILU emissary to the CP to discretely try to soften the blows from Moscow against the Labor Council, and particularly against Jack Ryan, the Labor Council’s research officer, a CPA leader who resisted the Third Period line. Eventually, however, Ryan was expelled from the CP on the eve of a vital ACTU conference.
His absence, as the most experienced CP speaker and leader, made the critical difference to the debate on a motion from right-wing unions to disaffiliate from the Pan Pacific Trade Union Secretariat, which was carried narrowly. Had Ryan spoken the result would probably have been different.
The bloodthirsty monster, Stalin, never forgave and never forgot even the slightest deviation from his will. A book published by Yale University Press containing newly released material from the Comintern archives includes letters and documents exchanged by Dimitrov and Stalin, which reveal the shabby, casual way in which Stalin purged Lozovsky from the RILU and closed down that body in the late 1930s because it had become a bit of an obstacle to the total Stalinisation of the Communist Party forces in the labour movement.
During World War II, however, Lozovsky again proved useful to Stalin because of his Jewish background and his wide connections in Jewish circles in Europe and the United States. He was made the main organiser of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in the Soviet Union, which was extraordinarily successful in mobilising Jewish community support for the Soviet Union in its war effort, particularly in the United States.
After the crisis of the war, however, Stalin’s underlying antisemitism began to resurface, and in the late 1940s and early 1950s, organisations like the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, and Vsevolod Meyerhold’s very successful Yiddish Theatre, were closed down, and all their main personnel, including Solomon Lozovsky, were arrested by the NKVD.
The greatest of all theatre producers in the Soviet period, Meyerhold, was murdered on Stalin’s instructions. The last fully fledged Moscow purge trial was held, in secret, in 1952, involving the leaders of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, with the main figure in the trial being Solomon Lozovsky, by now an old man, and up until then one of the very few survivors of the old Bolsheviks.
The transcript of that trial recently surfaced in the GPU archives, and it has now been published by Yale University Press. The book is Stalin’s secret pogrom. The postwar inquisition of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee edited by Joshua Rubenstein and Vladimir Naumov (Yale 2001). The transcript of this final Moscow Trial makes the most extraordinary reading.
In the transcript Lozovsky, the stubborn old Bolshevik, who has, no doubt, capitulated to Stalin several times, nevertheless finds the extraordinary inner resources to repudiate, in the courtroom, the confession that has been extorted from him under torture. He makes a lengthy and detailed speech defending his life’s activities, and indicting the Stalinist Court and Stalinist justice. Nevertheless, he and most of his fellow accused are found guilty, sentenced to death and shot on July 18, 1952. Lozovsky was 75.
One political point that emerges from this episode is the shallowness of the political vacillations of the very pragmatic and impressionistic leadership of the DSP. Towards the end of the Gorbachev period, they developed the theory that somehow a strand of revolutionary content had survived in the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, that had suddenly flowered under Gorbachev, and that Gorbachev was therefore a genuine Marxist leader.
A serious overview of the reality of the process of Stalinisation of the Soviet Union, and the world Communist movement, and the detailed history of that development, ought to have given them pause before making such a facile and false political turn concerning Stalinism.
The life story of Solomon Lozovsky underlines what a tactical monstrosity the imposition of the Third Period line on the left of the world labour movement actually was. People caught up in the Stalinist machine, like Lozovsky and thousands of others, had no way of extricating themselves from the Third Period meatgrinder.
How bizarre it is for a small socialist group, which isn’t caught in any set of circumstances like that, to voluntarily adopt a kind of Third Period tactic as their main orientation in the workers’ movement.
1. For some of this debate the review by Sue Boland (Green Left Weekly).
2. For a description of the evolution of the DSP’s attitude towards Gorbachev, see The politics of the Democratic Socialist Party by Chris Gaffney