Bob Gould, 2003

Developing class consciousness
From the ALP to the revolutionary party

Source: Ozleft, November 19, 2003
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

[Extract from Section III of the resolution The Labor Party and the Crisis of Australian Capitalism, adopted at the fourth national conference of the Socialist Workers Party (forerunner of the Democratic Socialist Party), January 24-28, 1976, and published in Towards a Socialist Australia: How the labor movement can fight back, Documents of the Socialist Workers Party, Pathfinder Press, Sydney, 1977, pp. 81-132. This excerpt pp. 110-119.]


Bob Gould

The Peter Boyle-Paperclayman response to my recent post on the Green Left Weekly discussion list Socialists and labour parties, is getting more hysterical, incoherent and untruthful in a number of matters. I will respond to several of these factual inaccuracies in a later post. However, it strikes me as very useful to post the following extract from one of the DSP leadership’s own documents, from the period before they made their great change to the current Third Period orientation towards the labour movement, which they have prosecuted in various ways since 1984-85.

This extract has some stylistic weaknesses, which go with the territory, notably its pontifical tone. This stylistic idiosyncrasy comes initially from James P Cannon and the US SWP, and is a kind of imitation of Comrade Trotsky on a bad day — a style old hands in the revolutionary movement are familiar with.

Despite these stylistic weaknesses, however, it was a pretty useful document because it canvasses all the contradictions inherent in the grip of Social Democracy on the labour movement and the working class in Australia. It is directed at the tasks facing socialists in trying to prosecute the socialist struggle in a principled way in the conditions of the Australian labour movement. In the subsequent 30 years or so, the labour movement has shifted to the right quantitatively, but not qualitatively. In this sense all the objective features of the grip of Laborism on the workers movement addressed in this document still exist. The movement has shifted to the right, but nevertheless the structural grip of Laborism on the working class is basically intact.

The DSP, like the whole far left, is now dramatically weaker than the far left in 1977, when the document was written. The disappearance of the Communist Party of Australia, which was by far the largest current of the far left in 1977 (and, to a lesser extent, the dramatic decline of the Socialist Labour League, which was also influential then), hasn’t led to any qualitative, or even significant numerical, increase in size of the other groups.

I’m reliably informed that this document was written by DH, who is still a leader of the DSP, with input from the DSP national secretary, the late Jim Percy, who took the initiative for writing the document. When the DSP made its turn, pragmatically, away from this orientation to the workers movement, it was driven by the rise of the Nuclear Disarmament Party. This turn away from the orientation outlined in the document was justified by a yabber-yabber “reinterpretation” of Lenin, in which the argument that the central thing about Lenin’s book Left Wing Communism and the struggle conducted by Lenin and the Bolsheviks to orient small communist organisations to the broad labor movement, was no longer important.

The new account held that the central thrust of Leninism related to the ideology of political parties, and that therefore, any tactical orientation to mass workers organisations was a deviation. This “rereading” of Lenin to justify a fundamentally sectarian orientation in conflict with the actual practice of the Bolsheviks and the Comintern in the 1920s is the DSP leadership’s major claim to a significant “development” of Marxist theory.

In fact, Left Wing Communism and Trotsky and Lenin’s speeches at the relevant Comintern congress address in detail the question of the subjective ideology of political parties, in tension with the sociology of mass labour organisations, and the document here is a pretty well straight reproduction of this dialectical approach of the Bolsheviks. It stands in stark contrast with the current strategic orientation of Peter Boyle and Co, of which we’ve had a vintage expression in the past few days, which essentially involves what Lenin tartly dubbed “scolding scoundrels”, as a substitute for strategy.

It’s pretty clear that the DSP leadership’s 1984-85 “rereading” of Lenin was a pragmatic falsification to justify a tactical turn, and that this major break from the method of the Bolsheviks has become substantially worse as the self-indulgent family atmosphere in the DSP increases.

I make this challenge to John Percy, Doug Lorimer, Peter Boyle and Paperclayman: please explain in detail the specific faults of the analysis presented in this document, as you now reject it. Address the document concretely.

Developing class consciousness: from the ALP to the revolutionary party

The Australian Labor Party: an obstacle to social change

The Australian Labor Party is the mass party of the Australian working class and represents both its strengths and weaknesses. With its formation the working class took a big step forward towards breaking with the political parties of the bourgeoisie. Today, however, the ALP is an obstacle to the further progress of the working class.

But because it does represent today the political consciousness of the Australian working class and because we strive to represent that consciousness in the future, orientation to the ALP is the axis of our work.

Dual nature of the ALP

The ALP, like its counterparts in Germany, Britain, Canada, New Zealand etc, is a thoroughly contradictory phenomenon. Even the phrases by which Marxists commonly refer to it are contradictory: “Social Democratic labour party” or “bourgeois workers party”.

The ALP is a labour party, that is, the mass party of the Australian working class. In its origins, composition and organisation it is the party of the trade unions. As a class party, it represents an historic advance for the Australian proletariat.

It is the only political mass organisation of the Australian working class. As the present expression of the political class consciousness of the working class it represents the elementary understanding that parallel to the economic struggle of the trade unions a political struggle must be conducted against the parties of the bosses.

At the same time, the ALP is a Social Democratic party. There is nothing whatsoever progressive about this aspect of the ALP. On the contrary, the Social Democratic program and leadership of the party are an obstacle to the development of revolutionary consciousness in the Australian proletariat. Social Democratic reformism is not a necessary stage in the development of working class consciousness or even a detour on the road to the revolutionary party: it is a barricade across the road, which prevents further progress.

The program and leadership of the ALP are in contradiction with the composition of the party. In its composition the ALP is a proletarian organisation, based on the trade unions. Such independent organisation of the class to fight for its interests is progressive. But from its beginning, the party has had a purely parliamentary and class-collaborationist perspective. This reformist outlook means that the ALP cannot satisfactorily defend even the immediate interests of the working class, to say nothing of its historical goals. This contradiction is summed up in the phrase “bourgeois workers party”: the ALP is working-class in its composition, but bourgeois in its program.

The ALP is the party of the Australian trade unions. But it is the party of the unions as they are, not as they ought to be. It is the party of unions, which at the present time come much closer to being “secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordination and disciplining of workers and for obstructing the revolution” than “instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat”. To put it another way, the ALP is based on the organised working class, but does not represent it: what it represents is the union bureaucracy.

Social Democracy is a petty-bourgeois ideology grafted on to the workers’ movement. Reflecting the unrealisable dreams of the petty bourgeoisie and the labour aristocracy, which are caught in the middle of the conflict between capital and labour, Social Democracy preaches a class-collaborationist utopia in which the irreconcilable conflict between capitalists and workers is compromised and harmonised — under the direction, naturally, of the petty-bourgeois politicians of the Social Democracy. The ALP leaders, like the union bureaucrats, do not see themselves as champions of the working-class in its battles with the employers. They see themselves as mediators of the conflict.

The ALP is thus in a state of perpetual tension between the contradictory poles of its dual nature. On the one hand, it is based on the organised working class and has the allegiance of the overwhelming majority of the class; on the other it serves the bourgeoisie.

Principled opposition and tactical flexibility

Our approach to the ALP is conditioned by this contradiction. Firstly, we are clear that the Labor Party is not our party because it is not the party that can bring about socialism. Here is how James P. Cannon put the matter when discussing the British Labor Party, and his comments apply equally to the ALP:

“But then the question is raised — the fact that the question is raised shows some confusion on the question of the labour party — comrades ask: ‘Well, what is the British Labour Party?’ If we judge it by its composition alone, we must say it is a ‘workers’ party’ for it is squarely based on the trade union movement of Great Britain. But this designation ‘workers’ party’ must be put in quotation marks as soon as we examine the program and the practice of the party. To be sure, the formal program and the holiday speeches mutter something about socialism, but in practice the British Labor Party is the governing party of British imperialism. It is the strongest pillar holding up this shaky edifice. That makes it a bourgeois party in the essence of the matter, doesn’t it? And since 1914, haven’t we always considered the Social Democratic parties of Europe as bourgeois parties? And haven’t we characterised Stalinism as an agency of world imperialism?”

Our fundamental attitude towards such parties is the same as our attitude toward a bourgeois party of the classical type — that is, an attitude of irreconcilable opposition.” (See Summary Speech on Election Policy by James P. Cannon in Aspects of Socialist Election Policy [New York: SWP National Education Department Education for Socialists bulletin, March 1971], p 30.)

So our attitude to the ALP is the same as it is to the Stalinists or any other opponent tendency: they are obstacles that will have to be overcome on the road to building the mass revolutionary party. But unlike the Stalinist parties in this country, the ALP has a progressive aspect — its mass working-class base. This fact does not alter our goal of removing the ALP as an obstacle to the socialist revolution, but it dictates a different set of tactics to accomplish that goal. To quote Cannon again:

“But the composition of such parties gives them a certain distinctive character which enables, and even requires, us to make a different tactical approach to them. If they are composed of workers, and even more, if they are based on the trade unions and subject to their control, we offer to make a united front with them for a concrete struggle against the capitalists, or even join them under certain conditions, with the aim of promoting our program of ‘class against class’.”

Cannon goes on to define what our approach would be to such a party if it developed in the US:

“We would oppose such a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’ as ruthlessly as any other bourgeois party, but our tactical approach would be different. We would most likely join such a party — if we have the strength in the unions they couldn’t keep us out — and under certain conditions we would give its candidates critical support in elections. But ‘critical support’ of a reformist labour party must be correctly understood. It does not mean reconciliation with reformism. Critical support means opposition. It does not mean support with criticism in quotation marks, but rather criticism with support in quotation marks.” (p 31.)

So our orientation to the ALP aims to exploit the contradictions within it in order to clear the party out of our way. We intervene in the ALP in order to sharpen the conflict between the working-class base on the one side and the bourgeois program and petty-bourgeois leadership on the other. Our aim is to make the contradiction between the party’s base and program blindingly clear to the ranks of the working class, which is another way of saying that we have to expose the ALP leaders as the craven servants of capital that they are.

None of this implies a sectarian attitude towards the ALP. On the contrary, the slightest hint of sectarianism could cut us off from the ranks of the party whom we want to reach. Our uncompromising criticisms of the ALP’s rotten program and treacherous leadership are always presented in the context of our support to the ALP as a party of the working people in opposition to the bosses.

The two sides of our orientation are not contradictions which somehow have to be made to coexist, but logical corollaries. It is precisely its bourgeois program that prevents the ALP from really defending the class interests of the proletariat against the bosses.

Our tactical approach towards the ALP can take a multitude of forms and depends only on what is most effective. We can carry out fraction work within the party. We can seek to involve elements of the party or the party as a whole in united front-type activity, eg the antiwar movement. We can at times urge people to join the ALP and urge the strengthening of its union base. Any combination of tactics is acceptable providing we maintain our programmatic independence.

Trotsky summarised our approach to work with a labour party when discussing the American Socialist Workers Party and US labour party: “In relation to the labour party in all stages of its development the SWP occupies a critical position, supports the progressive tendencies against the reactionary, and at the same time irreconcilably criticises the half-way character of these progressive tendencies.” (See The Program of the Labour Party by Leon Trotsky in The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, p 242.)

In general our method of exploiting the contradiction between the base and the program of the ALP is to demand that the ALP leaders act as most workers still believe them to be — their representatives. We demand that the ALP act like a working-class party by defending working-class interests. The aim is not only to persuade the ranks that a particular proposal is desirable, but to put the onus on the ALP (and the union) leadership for failing to carry it out. Thus, for example, after the dismissal of the Labor government, we did not — like the CPA and the “Trotskyist” sects — call for a general strike in the abstract or demand that the workers down tools because we told them to; we demanded that the ALP and the unions call a general strike.

Virtually any demand which is in the interest of the working class or other oppressed layers and which seems reasonable to the masses can serve the purpose of exposing the ALP leadership and sharpening the contradictions within the party. It is not necessary to catalogue such demands here; our draft program contains numerous such examples.

Labor to Power! For a workers government!

There is another important weapon in the arsenal that revolutionary Marxists have developed for use against mass reformist parties in the working-class movement. This is the demand that such parties take state power and for a workers or workers and farmers government.

This tactic is not at all the same as merely calling on the reformist party to take over the government of the capitalist state. In 1917, the Bolsheviks were able to expose the ultimately pro-capitalist programs of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries by calling on them to “take the power” even though reformists already headed the Provisional Government. The Bolshevik demand meant: break with the capitalist state and form a government based upon your majority in the Soviets. The Bolsheviks raised this demand because they realised that in order to form a government based on the Soviets, the reformists would have had to contradict their programmatic allegiance to the bourgeois state.

What the Bolsheviks’ demand would have created if the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries had yielded to it has been referred to in the Trotskyist movement as a workers and peasants’ government or workers’ government depending on the class composition of the country concerned. Such a government is neither a capitalist government nor the dictatorship of the proletariat, but an extremely unstable and short-lived phenomenon that can arise when the capitalist state has been severely weakened but not destroyed and the workers and their allies have not yet, for whatever reason, established a dictatorship of the proletariat. Such a government is independent of the bourgeoisie and will therefore be overthrown by the capitalists at the first opportunity if it does not first abolish the power of the capitalists by establishing a workers state. The importance of the demand for a workers government for us at the present time lies in its propagandistic and agitational use. Trotsky explained this in the Transitional Program:

“The central task of the Fourth International consists in freeing the proletariat from the old leadership, whose conservatism is in complete contradiction to the catastrophic eruptions of disintegrating capitalism and represents the chief obstacle to historical progress. The chief accusation which the Fourth International advances against the traditional organisations of the proletariat is the fact that they do not wish to tear themselves away from the political semi-corpse of the bourgeoisie. Under these conditions the demand, systematically addressed to the old leadership: ‘Break with the bourgeoisie, take the power!’ is an extremely important weapon for exposing the treacherous character of the parties and organisations of the Second, Third and Amsterdam Internationals.” (The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, p. 94.)

And further:

“The agitation around the slogan of a workers’-farmers’ government preserves under all conditions a tremendously educational value. And not accidentally. This generalised slogan proceeds entirely along the line of the political development of our epoch (the bankruptcy and decomposition of the old bourgeois parties, the downfall of democracy, the growth of fascism, the accelerated drive of the workers toward more active and aggressive politics). Each of the transitional demands should, therefore, lead to one and the same political conclusion: the workers need to break with all traditional parties of the bourgeoisie in order, jointly with the farmers, to establish their own power.” (p. 95.)

The development of the class struggle in Australia has not yet produced soviets, which would considerably simplify the task of presenting the demand for a workers’ government. Nevertheless, we have developed slogans which express the same essence as the Bolsheviks’ demand that the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries “take the power”. Naturally, the best opportunity for the present to advance such slogans is provided during election campaigns, when the question of government is foremost in the minds of workers and the other oppressed.

Election tactics

In the 1972 and 1974 elections, we put forward the slogan, “Vote ALP! Fight for Socialist Policies!” This was a concrete expression in the given context of the slogan “For a Workers Government”. It meant: for government by the mass party of the working class, but one not committed to the bourgeois program of the ALP — a government independent of the bourgeoisie.

By using this tactic of critical support we are using Lenin’s method: “Support them in order to force them to take office so that the masses will learn by experience the futility and treachery of their program, and get through with them.”

In 1975, the growth of our organisation and the development of its cadres made it possible for us to advance the same idea in a more concrete — and therefore more effective — form. By running our own candidates, we could pose more directly the contradiction between the working-class base of the ALP and its bourgeois program. By putting forward our own candidates on a clear program of transitional demands, while calling unmistakably for the return of a Labor government, we gave workers the opportunity and encouragement to oppose the reactionary policies of the ALP without abandoning the one progressive aspect of the ALP, its character as the mass party of the working class in opposition to the parties of the bosses.

We think that Trotsky expressed this correct approach of a small formation towards the mass Labour Party in his discussions on the Independent Labour Party in Britain in 1935. Trotsky was asked:

Question: Was the ILP correct in running as many candidates as possible in the recent General Elections, even at the risk of splitting the vote?”

Answer: Yes. It would have been foolish of the ILP to have sacrificed its political program in the interests of so-called unity, to allow the Labour Party to monopolise the platform, as the Communist Party did. We do not know our strength unless we test it. There is always a risk of splitting and losing deposits, but such risks must be taken. Otherwise we boycott ourselves.” (See Once Again the ILP: An Interview with Leon Trotsky in Writings of Leon Trotsky (1935-1936) [New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970], p. 69.)

The revolutionary thrust of our election campaign strategy can be highlighted by contrasting it to that of the CPA, which managed to be opportunist and sectarian simultaneously. The CPA campaign was opportunist because it put forward no real programmatic differences with the ALP. It was sectarian because putting forward its own candidates without expressing political differences could only mean: “Vote for our candidate over the ALP’s because he or she represents our organisation instead of theirs; we are better than the ALP but we won’t tell you why.”

Trotsky also pointed out that we run in elections against the Labor Party not to expose this or that individual candidate who is particularly reactionary but to expose the party as a whole. There is no fundamental distinction between different shades of Social Democrat. Nor do we urge a vote for Labor on the basis of some or another aspect of its program:

“Revolutionists never give critical support to reformism on the assumption that reformism, in power, could satisfy the fundamental needs of the workers. It is possible, of course, that a Labour government could introduce a few mild temporary reforms. It is also possible that the League [of Nations] could postpone a military conflict about secondary issues — just as a cartel can eliminate secondary economic crises only to reproduce them on a large scale. So the League can eliminate small episodic conflicts only to generalise them into world war.

“Thus, both economic and military crises will only return with an added explosive force so long as capitalism remains. And we know that Social Democracy cannot abolish capitalism.

“No, in war as in peace, the ILP must say to the workers: ‘The Labour Party will deceive you and betray you, but you do not believe us. Very well, we will go through your experiences with you but in no case do we identify ourselves with the Labour Party program’” (p 70).

Some have argued that the ALP is already exposed and to run in elections only gives credibility to parliamentary democracy. In these circumstances we should urge a boycott, they say. Trotsky’s answer was:

“It is argued that the Labour Party already stands exposed by its past deeds in power and its present reactionary platform. For example, by its decision at Brighton. For us — yes! But not for the masses, the eight million who voted Labour. It is a great danger for revolutionists who attach to much importance to conference decisions. We use such evidence in our propaganda — but it cannot be presented beyond the power of our own press. One cannot shout louder than the strength of his own throat …

“As a general statement of principle, a revolutionary party has the right to boycott parliament only when it has the capacity to overthrow it, that is, when it can replace parliamentary action by general strike and insurrection, by direct struggle for power. In Britain the masses have yet no confidence in the ILP. The ILP is therefore too weak to break the parliamentary machine and must continue to use it. As for a partial boycott, such as the ILP sought to operate, it was unreal. At this stage of British politics it would be interpreted by the working class as a certain contempt for them: this is particularly true in Britain where parliamentary traditions are still so strong.” (p. 70.)

Of course, in running in elections we in no way fall prey to the trap of the Social Democrats who see parliament as the decisive arena of struggle and the way to win reforms for the working class. We take our stand along the lines of the resolution of the Second Congress of the Comintern on The Communist Attitude to Parliamentary Reformism:

“In face of imperialist devastation, plunder, violation, robbery and ruin, parliamentary reforms, devoid of system, of consistency and of definite plan, have lost all practical significance for the working masses …

“Parliament at present can in no way serve as the arena of struggle for reform, or for improving the lot of the working people, as it was at certain periods of the preceding epoch. The centre of gravity of political life at present has been completely and finally transferred beyond the limits of Parliament.” (See Aspects of Socialist Election Policy, p. 5.)

Any candidates who are successful in election contests will act as “scouting parties” for the working class and use the parliamentary bodies as a forum to propagate the ideas and demands of socialism. Where and when we run our own candidates in the future will depend on our strength, the gains that can be made, and considerations of a similar nature. The growth of our organisation will increasingly make it possible for us to run our own candidates and thus pose concretely our program against the program of the ALP.