Bob Gould, 2002

A Socialist Alliance left unity meeting in Brisbane

The Dave Riley-DSP school of gratuitous abuse, or is the drought and the heat causing strange poisons to enter the Queensland water supply?

Source: Self-published pamphlet, November 25-27, 2002
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

I’ve just, within the space of an hour or two, read Dave Riley’s vindictive and petulant account of a political meeting in Brisbane, and the latest issue of Green Left Weekly. The editorial in GLW continues its relentless “exposure of Laborism” around the not-yet-passed ASIO legislation and, rather than attempting any campaign to persuade Labor to throw out the legislation, it simply “exposes” the Laborites for a betrayal not yet committed.

The editorial finishes with this imperishable expression of the united front: “Australian desperately needs an alternative to the economic rationalist, racist and anti-democratic two-party duopoly. It is clearer than ever that this will not be found inside the ALP. If there are still decent, hopeful activist inside the ALP, now would be a good time to leave and join the Socialist Alliance.”

Nice and simple, that proposition. I bought my GLW at tonight’s meeting of the coalition organising the November 30 Walk Against Bush’s War, with about 35 people in attendance, about 10 of whom were members of the ALP. The GLW editorial writers can’t help themselves when it comes to abusive language about Labor and individual Laborites. I wonder if the other ALP members, who are union officials, student activists, etc, who were there tonight, read Green Left.

Despite the fact that a federal Liberal government is in power and actually perpetrating most of the attacks on our rights and living standards, most of the recent editorials in Green Left mainly denounce Labor, using similar language to the editorial cited above.

Which brings me to Dave Riley. He posts a weird and abusive account of a forum on lefty unity, or in Riley’s case, left disunity, and slags off almost all the assorted Brisbane leftists attending, accusing them of dishonesty, etc, and in particular of the greatest of all capital crimes: assorted disagreements with the DSP’s regroupment proposals.

Apparently, if you don’t snap to attention and do what the DSP and Riley tell you, you’re dishonest, backward-looking or, the mildest epithet used by Riley, insufficiently “upbeat”.

Dave Riley should draw on his psychiatric nurse training and step back a bit, look at what he’s saying, demanding and projecting. He asserts that the way of the future lies with the DSP’s unitary regroupment proposals and yet he describes a meeting where everybody present, except the DSP, rejected the DSP’s proposals.

He doesn’t just report their views. He doesn’t report their views in any detail at all, he just abuses them a bit for holding those views and disagreeing with the DSP.

Dave Riley fancies himself a bit, as a literary kind of bloke. He’s knowledgeable enough to dismiss, in a sweeping way, Trotsky’s approach to literature because Trotsky was insufficiently fond of Stalinist social realism (I intend to comment in a bit more detail on these literary questions soon, in another post).

Riley will no doubt remember Bertolt Brecht and his famous, enigmatic Stalinist aphorism about the people: “The people have lost the confidence of the government; the government has decided to dissolve the people, and to appoint another one,” and that seems to be Riley’s approach to the other leftists at the meeting, who obstinately refused to roll over and understand the profound political wisdom of the DSP.

Which gets me to my next point: the function of abuse and ridicule in politics. I’m no angel in relation to abuse, humour and ridicule. If someone attacks me, or my associates, or someone I respect and consider important, I’ll respond as shrewdly and brutally, and sometimes humorously, as I can.

Like Michael Palin on Australian television, in a clip from the Life of Brian, at the end of his Sahara piece last night, I often find effective laughter is a good way to bring opponents back to earth. Nevertheless, in political conflict, struggle and argument, in general it’s usually sensible to only attack either people who attack you and things you hold dear, or really entrenched enemies such as the ruling class, Stalinist bureaucracies or right-wing Labor leaders, and even with them it’s sound politics to keep your abuse or ridicule to specific current issues. Most sane people rapidly tire of gratuitous abuse.

Great polemicists such as Lenin and Trotsky even had the knack of treating their worst class enemies with a certain respect, because that was often a more effective method of combating them than simple abuse.

If I crack a few highly political jokes at Peter Boyle’s expense, I’ve got reasonable cause. He slung the first piece of abuse in recent times.

Is there some strange poison in the water in Brisbane, and has it perhaps spread to Christchurch, as well? What is it that causes Phil Ferguson to sling such awesome personal abuse at Russel Johnson? I only met the man a couple of time, and he seemed to me a passable sort of clone of the US SWP, out of the US SWP’s clone factory, I don’t see much point in pursuing him to the grave.

When Barry Sheppard first came to Australia in 1969, Jim and John Percy and I didn’t initially recognise him at the airport, until we finally worked out that the bloke who looked like a Mormon missionary had to be the visiting North American Trotskyist.

Sheppard and the Percys got together quickly to organise my overthrow, despite the po-faced way they deny it now. But that’s life, I don’t see much point in pursuing a rabid personal vendetta with either John or Barry. Things happen in political life, you do certain things, and then you move on.

I’m a bit amazed at the explosion of massive retrospective personal injury and vindictiveness that has poured out on Marxmail, particularly about the US SWP, particularly in the past few weeks.

Like Richard Fidler and Tom O’Lincoln, I’m not too fussed about who drank what, when, where or how, except insofar as it affects politics. And such things often get twisted in personal memory, depending where you sat in past conflicts.

When we held our seminar here in Australia a few months ago for past members of the Australian SWP/DSP and other Trotskyist groups, there was in fact a fair bit of cathartic debriefing, some of it of an intensely personal nature. But sound political judgment has led us to put a lot of that aside, except insofar as particular events have a very direct bearing on political developments.

It seems to me that a sense of proportion and sound political judgement is required when deciding just how much of past personal conflicts to commit to paper and how to handle them if you do commit them to paper. Some events and experiences should possibly be left for inclusion in the novel many of us toy with in the back of our heads. Sometimes it’s better just to let the dead bury the dead.

We all have lots of atrocity stories to tell about past injuries done to us, but truth to tell, those atrocity stories are not the decisive political events of the 20th century.

I have a slight advantage here, in that, at some expense I’ve acquired under the Australian Freedom of Information Act, the voluminous files accumulated on me by ASIO (the Australian political police), which start in 1954, when I was 17 and cut out at the end of 1972 under the 30-year rule. I’ll get 1973 next February, and annually thereafter until I cark it, and I’ve authorised my heirs and successors to continue the process after that.

There’s about 5000 pages of it, between the ASIO and NSW Special Branch files. I’m told by the archivists in Canberra that mine is the biggest file they’ve ever seen. The reason is that I was at the centre of a series of agitations for seven or eight years, and due to ASIO’s methodology of sticking into your file every telephone conversation in which you figure, which they tapped, my file is a kind of social history of the time, as I figured in the conversations of many friends, friendly opponents and political enemies.

If I got hot under the collar, now, about what people said about me then, or if other people got upset about my comments, there’d be no end to it. It’s interesting and has some political, literary and historical importance, but one should try to keep a sense of proportion.

I find Gary McLennan’s retrospective demonising of Ian Rintoul of the ISO and Mick Armstrong of the Socialist Alternative a bit mystifying, particularly when Gary says he feels physically sick at the prospect of being in the same room as the relatively inoffensive Rintoul. I find both blokes actually quite affable nowadays.

I’ve had plenty of blues with Rintoul and Armstrong in the past, as I’m having currently with Boyle, but I can, and do, quite happily sit in the same room as Boyle even if he and his mates growl at me a bit and I growl back at them. That’s political life.

I’m no Christian. I’m not advocating a turn-the-other-cheek philosophy, I just believe that it’s smart politics, in the main, only to attack people verbally if they attack you first, do it as humorously and effectively as possible, and have a certain sense of proportion in these questions. I also think it’s rather mad to carry extreme personal grudges for 30 years.

I shudder to think of the verbal exchanges about assorted personalities that must take place when Dave Riley and Gary McLennan run into each other, if what they commit to paper is any guide.

A genuine question: is Russell Johnson still alive? It’s hard to tell from Phil Ferguson’s verbal assault on him.


1. Dave Riley on Marxmail, November 25, 2002. Here in Brisbane over the weekend Socialist Alliance sponsored a meeting with the topic: Which Way Forward for the Left. With three speakers delivering future models it drew a good crowd.

As a left gathering it was very representative of the seventies/eighties left — even the local Greens were present. Except for the predictable screeching of one attendee it was a comradely discussion.

Present were Socialist Alternative, the ISO, the DSP, the (old Moscow-aligned) CPA, a diehard Maoist, the Greens, Workers Liberty, reps from the local Labour History Association, the remnant of the local Left Press collective, a swag of ex-ISers ( such as Carole Ferrier), some ex-DSP members, nonaligned Socialist Alliance members and other (to employ a euphemism) ’independents’. The meeting was held in the local home for the ALP socialist left, the Paddington Workers Club ( a project primarily engineered by ex-ALP senator George Georges and Hughey Williams from the Transport Workers Union). For the moment the SA’s home in Brisbane is the Paddo Workers Club.

Unfortunately a local union organiser, scheduled to speak from the platform, couldn't attend. Aside from the DSP and ISO speakers, the third speaker from the platform was Dan O'Neill — a long-time left independent and academic (and, I think, not a member of the Socialist Alliance)

Primarily, folk were there to scrutinize what momentum there may be in and with the Socialist Alliance for a regrouped party.

Unfortunately, Dan O'Neill advocated the same project and analysis he has been talking about , in my memory, for about twenty years and his dismissal out of hand of any organisational remaking of the Left wasn't at all helpful. Dan’s was a “wrong way, go back” position. Indeed in terms of analysis and offering a “way forward for the left” it’s only the DSP proposition that pretends to go forward. In terms of rhetoric, most of what passes as discussion, it seems to me, is either nostalgic or a romantic vision, short on practical detail, of “going to the working class, comrade”.

The ISO argument has changed over the last few weeks and basically now advocates a rollback of the Socialist Alliance while fending off pressure to move the SA forward with arguments against this as being a recipe for “reformism”. Instead the ISO advocates a totally dishonest (primarily electoralist) coalition — set up and run by revolutionary socialist organizations but built around a minimalist platform. So minimalist and conservative that I doubt any other left formation would agree to the package. In contrast, Socialist Alternative — who intervened then left after they’d said what they came to say — are snapping at the heels of the ISO from the left. It’s like the ISO of the past reincarnated to haunt its present existence.

What was also evident from some of the old-guard attendees was the belief that the left failed these last so many years because the Marxist organizations of the left, primarily the ISO and the DSP, “failed to grow”, thus letting the side down. Of course, these party formations are supposed to grow (like performing seals) independent of their critics and without recourse to any references to conditions outside of themselves. The corollary of this argument was that it was up to the left organizations to initiate and organise any number of caucuses in the trade unions but really, “regroupment” wasn't anything we’d be interested in individually right now. How anyone could think a purely “electoral coalition”: can help them do that I don't know. So for them, I guess the ISO package didn’t have much to offer.

While I sympathise with these outlooks and hesitancies that come from folk whose activist credentials deserve respect, the only projections on the day that were in any way upbeat and affirmative were coming from the DSP and, almost by default, from Socialist Alternative as it drove home its perceived advantage against the ISO.

The speakers’ talks to the gathering will be uploaded on to the Socialist Alliance web page.