Bob Gould, 2002

Left discussion and fire ants
A response to Nick Fredman and Peter Boyle

Source: Self-published pamphlet, November 19, 2002
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

Nick Fredman and Kim Bullimore go into some detail accusing me of a series of misinterpretations or falsifications. Kim says I got it wrong in quoting something said at the Gaelic Club meeting by the DSP comrade from Newcastle. According to Kim the Newcastle comrade said they’d bring 60 people down if the DSP proposal for the Socialist Alliance went through and I must have mis-heard the figure as 160. Maybe Kim’s right, maybe I did mis-hear, but I don’t think so, because the 160 figure seemed so strange to me at the time. When I read later in a DSP internal bulletin that 160 was the number of contacts for the Socialist Alliance in the Newcastle area, that put the figure in context. Why would the comrade have said 60? Where could that precise figure have come from?

I’ll leave decision as to who mis-heard or mis-said, up to the intelligent reader.

Kim Bullimore, a DSP leadership loyalist whose protestations about her own activism I accept, makes two partly contradictory loyalist assertions: firstly she’s too busy to pay too much attention to my writing; and secondly, she’s offended as a “rank-and-filer” because I try to catch the flavour of the internal atmosphere of the DSP as I see it, and she resents the tone of my description of this atmosphere.

She asserts that the near-perfect unanimity apparent at DSP conferences I’ve attended, and the uniform genial factionalism of most DSP activists that a very large part of the far left in Australia is familiar with, are figments of my imagination. She counterposes the existence of some kind of underworld in the DSP in which individual members express dissenting opinions to each other by email, etc.

The problem with that is that there’s a long experience of people who’ve been in the DSP, including some very recently, that immediately anyone has dissenting opinions the leadership tends to go into energetic and constant session to isolate such people from the rest of the membership.

Again, whose view of the internal DSP is closer to reality, Kim’s or mine, is really up to the reader's judgment. In the case of Marxmail, the readers who may be interested in these very detailed discussions of the Australian left are the 60 or 70 members of the DSP who surf Marxmail a bit, the 20 or 30 members of other Australian left organisations, groups or currents who also surf Marxmail, and the interested Marxist public overseas, particularly concentrated in the US, who have some familiarity with the trajectory of organisations like the DSP in their own country and can make a reasonably informed judgement on the relative truthfulness of Kim Bullimore, Nick Fredman, Peter Boyle, Steve Painter or Bob Gould, partly by examining what they say, and partly on the basis of their own experience of similar organisations in other countries.

I believe that I describe the internal atmosphere and political culture of the DSP reasonably accurately. If I make mistakes, I try to correct them, and we all make mistakes. One useful feature of this debate and discussion over the last two or three months is that a very big chunk of the discussion on the Australian far left is up on the web; now even on the DSP sites, thanks to the internal bulletin material lobbing into the public arena from time to time.

Those wishing to make a sensible balance sheet of all the contradictory arguments and emphases, now have plenty of material to consider, and Steve and I take a certain amount of pride in the way our energetic literary activities have contributed to this situation. We don’t try, on Ozleft, to repeat all the material on the Green Left site. We can confidently expect that the DSP will put up everything, no matter how trivial, that supports its point of view. We use our site to present another angle and we put plenty of pointers on Ozleft to the DSP sites to aid the discussion in a rational way. There are pointers to the Socialist Alliance and the DSP sites, and to some items on those sites and the Green Left site.

At this point I would like to draw attention to another interesting site, that of an individual member of the DSP, Rohan P, called Red Space. We discovered this extremely useful site a couple of months ago, and rediscovered it a few days ago when looking for Ernest Mandel’s speech, Workers Under Neocapitalism (which I published as a pamphlet 35 years ago) because I want to cite it in my wash-up piece on the labour aristocracy debate, which I’m preparing. There it was on Red Space, which when you examine it closely, is a very varied resource. It has quite a bit of material about Latin America, some useful short pieces by Cannon and Mandel, and a lot of other ideological odds and ends, a bit, in a way, like Ozleft. It’s not as specific and narrow as the Green Left and DSP sites. What the existence of this site means in relation to the DSP is hard to know, but it’s a very handy resource.

Let the discussion proceed, but bear in mind, these days it’s almost impossible to keep serious discussions internal, which brings me to Nick Fredman.

He whinges that it’s unfair and unreasonable to comment on, in detail, the internal discussion, such as it is, in his organisation. I don’t think it’s unfair and unreasonable at all.

After spending most of my life around the Trotskyist movement, in the mid-1990s I started going to public gatherings of the far left organisations, including conferences, etc, arguing sharply for a horizontal, open discussion among the members and leaderships of the far left organisations on disputed tactical questions, without the restraint imposed by keeping those discussions internal to the particular organisation.

I argued that the movement had reached a point of reductio ad absurdum in the kind of set-up that existed in many countries, where sizeable groups of Trotskyists existed but the closed universe of each group cut off the members from serious discussion with members of other groups, tending to reinforce prejudices, and that in reality the major organisations were a permanent block to each other in their objective of achieving hegemony over the movement.

Initially I was dismissed, particularly by the leadership of the DSP (and Peter Taafe at a meeting on his visit to Australia), as an “old crank” for advancing that particular model for discussion and regroupment.

When the DSP took the initiative to start the Socialist Alliance in Australia, it adopted a model that de-emphasised horizontal discussion between the members of the organisations, arguing that such discussion would be bad for the unity of the new organisation, and the other organisations tended to adapt to the DSP’s view of how the discussion should proceed.

The DSP model for the Socialist Alliance clearly, by definition, excluded those who disagreed with the electoral project, which was initially placed by the DSP at the centre of the Socialist Alliance. Obviously, ALP members and Greens, organisationally involved in other electoral projects, and anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists opposed in principle to running in elections, were excluded from this framework, which tended also to exclude serious tactical discussion of all the questions affecting the interests of the far left inside the alliance, and the left Greens, left Laborites, syndicalists, etc, outside it.

At the well-attended initial Sydney meeting, I gave out a document arguing for a two-strand Socialist Alliance, one strand including the groups involved in the independent electoral project, and another strand involving left people in the ALP and the Greens, and syndicalists, in a loose association with a particular emphasis on serious political discussion. The DSP took a very hard line against my model. John Percy attacked my proposal at the meeting, and Peter Boyle caricatured me and my “agitator’s stutter” (which was quite pronounced in the intense atmosphere of this particular meeting) in the next internal bulletin of the DSP.

The developments since that meeting, including the DSP’s own actions, have produced a changed situation concerning the necessary public political debate on socialist strategy. Life itself has blown sky-high the DSP’s attempts to avoid serious tactical discussion. Polemical demands by Bob Gould for a serious discussion have limited effect, but the crisis in the Socialist Alliance, precipitated by the DSP’s attempt to use the regroupment in the crudest way to reinforce entirely its tactical perspective in the labour movement, has brought a more horizontal discussion about policy, strategy and tactics in the socialist movement, clearly on to the political agenda of the far left in Australia.

The DSP can’t for much longer resist a public tactical discussion if, for instance, it wants to continue any kind of alliance with the ISO.

At the risk of offending, the fierce competition between Trotskyist formations, in English-speaking countries — the area with which I’m most familiar — and particularly the behaviour of the Australian DSP and the British Militant group, brings to my mind the following analogy from the animal world. Bees and ants are social animals that are well-organised, hierarchical and rather fierce. Some are fiercer than others. Bees have queens and workers, ants have queens, workers and soldiers.

Much trouble happens in Australia and North America when ant or bee breeds are unleashed from other countries. There’s a hullabaloo in Australia at the moment about certain bee species, and fire ants, which wipe out colonies of local species in the case of ants, or come to dominate other species by interbreeding, in the case of bees.

Despite the close and relatively recent genetic relationship between different species of ants and bees, they fight each other fiercely and often to the point of extinction of one species by another. They are not animals highly developed in their thinking, beyond certain limits, and are driven by evolution to behave in the way they do.

The fiercest species of ants will exterminate less-fierce species, and even occupy their anthills. At their worst, speaking as an old Trotskyist who has been though a number of political battles and wars, a number of groupings seem to me to have more and more come to resemble this blind Darwinian behaviour, in particular of the fiercest species of ants.

Insofar as revolutionary Marxist organisations degenerate into this Darwinian type of grouping, they tend to become obstacles to the further development of the socialist movement. The ultra-Cannonist organisational form that has become characteristic of a number of groups appears to me to accelerate the tendency of some Trotskyist and ex-Trotskyist organisations, such as the DSP in particular, to act like fire ant colonies.

Nick Fredman says I must be deluded because I attended an education conference and thought the DSP was voting. In fact, I attended three DSP conferences in successive Decembers for a few sessions, and it was the decision-making one that I attended that prompted my current critique of the DSP. I went to the conference mainly to hear the talk and discussion on trade union matters and it happened that the student session was the same day, so I sat in on both. The total focus in both sessions on the exposure tactic, towards a supra-historical abstraction they called “Laborism”, genuinely shook me. I hadn’t quite realised before that conference the centrality that this tactic had acquired for the whole political life of the DSP.

Even the physical arrangements at the conference accentuated my uneasiness. The elected delegates were up the front in a bloc (although perhaps that was physically the only arrangement available), and after the hour-and-a-bit-long reports and a certain amount of rather desultory discussion in the intense heat of a January afternoon, all the hands would go up unanimously. Anyone who has attended a DSP conference in recent years will know what I mean.

Again, whether or not my description of the internal atmosphere of the DSP is accurate or a caricature, I leave the readers of Marxmail to decide, bearing in mind that they now have plenty of material and experience about the DSP and other such organisations for consideration in making a balance sheet.

In the past few hours, Peter Boyle has put up a post that is, for him, very moderate in tone. Nick Fredman has also put up a short post, and the essence of both posts is summarised in Fredman’s last paragraph:

“To be extra clear, especially for Jeff: no one denies at all the reality of principled differences between the various groups: the point is that we would be far more effective with one bloc, one general tactical orientation at events and indeed one newspaper, and through increasing joint work start resolving some principled differences, while leaving others to be championed by the different tendencies of such a united organisation.”

Boyle’s post amounts to the same assertion, which can be summarised as returning to the proposition that a general regroupment should take place on the basis of common work, without serious emphasis on resolving the tactical differences between the groups and individuals. But it is exactly this DSP approach to regroupment, without serious discussion, that has been specifically rejected by most of the other groups, particularly the ISO. They insist it is impossible to have a regroupment without serious political discussion beforehand. In this sense, Peter Boyle and Nick Fredman are like the Bourbon kings, who learned nothing and forgot nothing.

The DSP “team leadership” doesn’t seem to have learned very much at all, at this stage, from the way this debate about regroupment has proceeded. In my view they are unlikely to get very far at all with a simple reassertion of the DSP’s desire for a speedy regroupment with a minimum of discussion. Most of the other participants in this minuet obviously have the view that a dramatic physical regroupment without serious tactical discussion gives all the advantages in this process to the “team leadership” of the DSP.

The public exhibition of the DSP’s internal strategic approach to this model of regroupment, spelled out so brutally by Peter Boyle in his NC report, has sunk fairly deeply into the consciousness of most active people in the other groups on the far left, and it’s hard to see how a simple reassertion of the good intentions of the DSP is likely to persuade anyone much towards a unitary regroupment with a minimum of discussion.

As a matter of routine, I intend to apply to the DSP to attend as an observer, the student and trade union sessions, at this year’s decision-making conference, as well as a couple of other sessions that may interest me. But in view of the recent political discussions, I’m not holding my breath waiting for a favourable reply.

The discussion between Louis Proyect, Richard Fidler and others, seating arrangements and the evolution of James Cannon’s organisational ideas

November 21, Marxmail

Phil Ferguson chides me for being, by his standards, overly provocative, and says that I’m in danger of being seen as a spoiler because of my fairly carefully expressed perspectives on the regroupment of revolutionary socialists in Australia. I can’t do a lot about that problem, because my proposals speak for themselves.

The fairly substantial argument and debate on all these questions on Marxmail tends to make most organisational and political propositions stand on their own feet. What does awe me a bit is the explosive impact of odd observations I’ve made or questions I’ve asked on Marxmail. I asked a genuine and straightforward question for my own information and for that of associated Australian comrades, about the US left.

I’m mightily impressed by the avalanche of information and discussion that question triggered off, and I found the resultant discussion about the US left absorbing and useful. If I lived in the US there’s little doubt in my mind that I would join Solidarity, pronto, as a critical but committed member. That’s the direction in which my personal interests lie.

I stand by my ants and bees analogy. It has a humorous aspect, obviously, but it’s of some use in standing a bit back from the battle of the factions to look, from a slightly critical standpoint, at the political process in which many of us have been involved for most of our adult lives. My throwaway observation about the seating and delegate arrangements at a DSP decision-making conference has also triggered some discussion.

As I said initially, there was possibly some justification for the delegates being at the front of the hall, but I didn’t really spell out in enough detail, what made me uneasy. It wasn’t just the seating arrangements but the total context. It seems to me that the way the thing was designed was to give exaggerated weight to the appearance of a democratic process in the DSP, when what was really at work was an intensely hierarchical, top-down process.

The scene was that big hall on the old Hawkesbury Agricultural College site, which has been the scene of DSP national meetings for about 25 years. It’s always as hot as hell in Sydney in December-January and it’s always hotter at Hawkesbury than anywhere in Sydney at that time of year, and the hall is not air-conditioned. About 300 people can be jammed into the hall, and often are. The form of the major presentations in the hall is almost always the same. The presenter speaks for well over an hour and there’s about three-quarters of an hour’s discussion from the floor on non-decision-making presentations.

During such presentations, everyone sits in rows with a fair number on the floor, looking to the front, with the soft-drink fridge and snack bar doing a roaring trade at the back of the room.

For the decision-making sessions, the seating is rearranged, and the delegates are seated in two blocks at the front, side-on to the presidium and facing each other. It’s a neat arrangement, but in my experience it accentuates very sharply the notion of the delegates and the presidium as the leadership. The same practical result could be achieved by simply leaving the seats in the other configuration, with the delegates sitting at the front, with a delegate’s credential.

Fifty or so delegates highlighted at the front in a very special way in a packed room with 250 observers tends to sharpen the difference between the observers and the delegates, which is obviously the effect intended by these arrangements. This basic arrangement hasn’t varied in the decision-making sections of the DSP conference for 25 years or so.

Obviously, the seating arrangements are a relatively trivial and secondary question. What really concerned me was the virulent, belligerent, unanimity behind extremely problematic strategic details on which there had quite obviously been some previous conflict within the organisation, and even probably within its leadership.

As I’ve said in other posts, the statement by the overconfident, mildly charismatic student organiser, obviously replying to some disagreement somewhere, (the somewhere not being obvious to the naked eye), that the Resistance intervention at the National Union of Students conference was the “perfect intervention”. He explained at length why it had been necessary for the DSP faction to split with everyone else on the left because they were compromising with the Laborites, a point of principle with the DSP, etc, etc. (It will be interesting to see what the DSP does at this year’s NUS conference in a couple of weeks. At this stage, most section of the far left, the two sections of the Labor left and most sections of the Broad Left have come together in a common caucus for this conference. It will be interesting to see what attitude the DSP adopts to this fairly important development.)

This DSP student leader’s notion of the possibility of a perfect intervention by anyone, anywhere, amused me, as an old agitator. The prolonged applause and the fierce unanimity behind this highly contentious report seemed to me to underline the overly homogeneous, top-down, “team-leadership”-dominated formation into which the DSP has crystallised.

A similar energetic and homogeneous unanimity behind Sue Bull’s rambling and equally contentious trade union report had a like effect on me.

Obviously, the seating arrangements aren’t the critical issue. I only mentioned them as a kind of shorthand for people on the left who have some familiarity with these questions, and I should have expressed myself in greater detail. Nevertheless, the discussion of these questions on Marxmail has been interesting.

The most important thing I seem to have triggered off is the useful and informative exchange between Richard Fidler and Louis Proyect, which involves issues of organisation in Marxist groups, that are certainly not resolved between the large number of Trotskyist, ex-Trotskyist and semi-Trotskyist groups and individuals on the planet, and are not entirely resolved for myself, after considerable experience and reading. On balance, I still favour, a liberally interpreted notion of Leninist organisation, based loosely on the better features of the practice of the Bolshevik Party, although not slavishly so.

Fidler’s reprint of Cannon’s 1945 organisational ideas is important, but on balance I favour Louis’ interpretation of the events. In particular, it seems to me, that Cannon’s 1945 conception, which tried to resolve the problem of a leadership divided into permanent factions, tended to produce a cure worse than the disease.

Many of the splits in the Trotskyist movement in different countries, and the subsequent emergence of new political fire-ant colonies with slight mutations, have been deliberately precipitated by leaderships, or even people who wished to be leaderships, of homogeneous organisations built around themselves.

There is little doubt, really, that Cannon deliberately precipitated the split with the Cochranites. As Louis Proyect keeps pointing out, the outcome could have been different. Cannon obviously had the best of intentions in trying to preserve the homogeneity of the organisation. In retrospect, that kind of organisational conception has had very damaging consequences, both in breaking up groupings with a lively and creative agitational and political life, and constructing what are essentially new organisations of an intensely internally rigid and uniform type, eventually producing outfits with characteristics that are often the opposite to those required for effective socialist leadership and agitation.

The quest for homogeneity, expressed in an exaggerated organisational way, gives rise to sects, and that is what, in my view, many of the organisations have essentially become, which is unfortunate. This is one of the reasons why I conduct my agitation for a somewhat different model of regroupment and internal set-up in Marxist groups.

A very good summary of a lot of these issues concerning models of Marxist organisation, is a small pamphlet by Mick Armstrong, Sandra Bloodworth and Marc Newman of Socialist Alternative, called Lenin and the Party: Debunking the Myths.

It’s worth noting that Cannon’s 1945 notions of organisation gave rise to a process in the SWP that became, in the event, irreversible. To deal with the Spartacists and Wohlforth, the SWP was tightened up in the famous 1965 Resolution, in such a way as to make factions nearly impossible. A little later, even Cannon revolted against this process, when it was used against his old associate Arne Swabeck, who had veered in the direction of Maoism. Cannon wrote one of his last polemical pieces, Don’t Strangle the Party, on this.

In that respect, the human drama of Jim Cannon is similar to the human drama, on a vastly more massive scale, involved in Lenin’s attack on Stalin, and Lenin’s suppressed testament. At the end of his life Lenin was becoming acutely aware of the complex, inter-related forces at work, in the party and the country, speeding up bureaucratic degeneration, and he was fighting hard to develop ideas and political structures to deal with those problems, when his life was so tragically cut short by illness.

One of the great historical speculations is what the history of the 20th century might have looked like had Lenin been well enough to be politically active for another 10 years or so.