Source: Self-published pamphlet, March 2002
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: by Steve Painter
Dear Comrade Alex,
Your Australian visit is looming up a bit of an event, involving a modest speaking tour, and your well-publicised appearance at the DSP’s coming Asia-Pacific International Solidarity Conference in Sydney.
I look forward to some sort of public political discussion with you, on a number of issues of theory, tactics and strategy, both international and Australian, that are important in the movement, and preoccupy me personally.
Having some experience of DSP conferences of this sort, and having had numerous anecdotal accounts of the British SWP’s big Marxism conferences, I anticipate that there will be considerable structural limits on the opportunity for public discussion of strategic questions at this conference, although as those who know me will no doubt tell you, I’ll have a go anyway, to the limits of what is allowed. Clearly your visit will involve urgent discussions between yourself and the DSP leadership, and your intense intervention to persuade the Australian ISO to adopt the immediate strategy favoured by the British SWP leadership.
Australian visits by international Trotskyist leaders have a mixed history. Going back to 1969, when the first overseas Trotskyist leader that most of us ever saw, Barry Shepherd, came here, to round up the local Trotskyists to form a “Cannon-type party”, and support the US Socialist Workers Party SWP in the then factional struggle in the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, these visits have had rather mixed results.
Shepherd’s visit was a great success, from the point of view of the US SWP at that time. It gave considerable momentum to the factional struggle of Jim and John Percy against me, and helped them considerably in starting up an organisation, which became, for its first period, a small local replica of the US SWP, built around a full-blooded educational diet of the complete works of Jim Cannon, a bit of Lenin and Trotsky, and not too much else.
A later visit, by Gerry Healy, had a considerable impact here, politically speaking, and Healy’s ruthlessly interventionist way of building his party internationally had a powerful and, in retrospect extremely negative, impact on the development of the Socialist Labour League. The SLL had started as a fusion of several independent Marxist groups, one of which had been influenced in a literary way, by Workers Press from Britain, but Healy knocked this outfit “into shape”, according to his extraordinarily domineering, and London-centralist inclinations. The consequences of Healy’s constant personal interventions in Australia were disastrous for the SLL, which has now, after several strange mutations, evolved into a website that owns a successful commercial printshop.
I say this with the painful benefit of hindsight. I was personally fascinated, and more or less convinced, by Healy’s pretensions to being a substantial workers’ leader, and moved on the basis of this powerful impact, for a few years, into the orbit of his organisation. Hindsight is a wonderful thing in these matters, and enables one to view things more critically than one often does at the time. We should make intelligent use of our hindsight, and the movement’s mistakes, and try to help current and future generations to avoid repeating some of these mistakes, if that is possible.
Visits by Ernest Mandel, Robin Blackburn and Tariq Ali had rather less real political impact here (and on me personally). At the time they came, they were mainly advocating rather ultraleft tactics towards the traditional labour movement, not unlike the extravagant denunciations of the ALP engaged in by the DSP now.
In particular, Robin Blackburn and Tariq were in full, eloquent, polished, flight, so to speak, in the pissing in the polling booths phase of their development. I had a rather labour-movementist orientation, and as I was a known supporter of the rival Healy formation, my contact with these visitors was confined to the limits imposed on critical speakers and questioners from the floor at meetings designed for Big Stars. (Blackburn and Tariq Ali, being British Gentlemen, and Big Men, coming out here to the Antipodes to teach the provincials a thing or two, were, as you might imagine, pretty arrogant towards rustic colonials like myself, who did not immediately rush to agreement with them, even on tactical questions.)
I regret my critical, distant stance towards Mandel now. I would rather like to have been able to spend time with him a bit, in a less hostile setting, but that’s life.
Blackburn made another, later tour, to another Big Conference organised by the DSP in about 1990, during the phase when the DSP and the British New Left Review (NLR) were courting each other, and he delivered, for the first time, his lengthy argument repudiating Leninism as the keynote speech at this conference. This presentation later appeared in NLR and was published by Verso in the book, After the Fall.
In retrospect, this conference, being built around Blackburn as the Big Star, was by far the largest Big Conference ever organised by the DSP, much bigger than the one that you will address in 2002. I’m reliably informed that the DSP are a bit disappointed at registrations for this coming conference.
I found myself in a rather tough position at the Blackburn Conference, trying to challenge aspects of Blackburn’s presentation from the floor, in the face of a very hostile DSP chairperson, who was determined to protect Blackburn at all costs from serious discussion of his complex, and in many major respects false, thesis repudiating the Leninist project. As you may know, the DSP’s romance with New Left Review fell apart, as Blackburn and company moved further to the right through the 1990s, and the DSP retreated further and further into a stylised Cannonism as a hold-the-fort kind of tactic in the difficult conditions of that period.
This stylised Cannonism was partly a reaction against the centrifugal forces that had been unleashed in the DSP by toying with Blackburn’s ideas, and similar ideas put forward by one of their American friends, the dissident from the American SWP, and Californian left-wing investment banker, Peter Camejo. Camejo was the star turn at two or three DSP Big Conferences in the early 1990s, and his political line quite steadily moved away more and more from anything resembling Marxism or Leninism. (Camejo became an early proponent of the kind of radical Movementism, espoused now by people like Michael Albert, on whom both the DSP, and the British SWP seem to look rather favourably.)
Finally, Camejo and the Australian DSP parted company, and Camejo sent the DSP a long-winded, complex document accusing them, in part correctly, of being a sect. The DSP leadership suppressed Camejo’s document, and it never reached the DSP membership, although it was indirectly discovered by a group of the central cadre of the DSP, who were becoming demoralised by the obvious conflict between the internal environment of the DSP sect, to which they had devoted a lot of their lives, and developments in the external world. This whole group of full-timers left the DSP at approximately the same time, and retired into private life.
These DSP set-piece conferences have a certain history. In the late 1980s, the rapidly decaying Eurocommunist Australian Communist Party conducted a couple of Big Conferences like the London Marxism Today Conferences, and organised national tours of Australia for, in particular, Stuart Hall and Beatrix Campbell. As you might imagine, the anti-Marxist, anti-working-class political ideas and practices popularised by Hall and Campbell,were a contributing factor in the ideological and political disintegration of the CPA, and to some extent, the left as a whole.
These political ideas softened up the left of the labour movement here, as popularised by the energetic local Communist Party union official, Laurie Carmichael, for the ACTU-ALP prices and incomes accord, which was a major material and ideological influence in the decline of the trade union movement and the retreat of the left in Australia.
The DSP, on the basis of a brainstorm of the late Jim Percy, developed the bold idea of filling the ecological niche left by the CPA, and the CPA’s Big Conferences and Tours, by organising such events of its own.
These DSP Big Events started during the period when the DSP was eclectically adding a modified Gorbachev Stalinism to its internal political menu, coincided externally with an attempt to merge with the rump of the Communist Party, in a New Left Party on the basis of junking a lot of what was at that point, for the DSP, the “old Trotskyism”.
These DSP Big Conferences soon assumed a set-piece form, taken over from the similar previous CPA events. They are crowded with subjects and speakers, and discussion of many of the more significant and difficult issues is severely minimised by being put in seminars competing directly with more glamorous events in slots where it’s not uncommon to have six, seven or eight seminars proceeding concurrently. The Big Plenaries are spectacular events, with 200 to 300 in the audience, a ruthless DSP chairperson who minimises floor debate and carefully selects Dorothy Dix DSP contributors, etc. These DSP Big Conferences have the apparent form of serious political venues for debate, but the actual practice has a significant Potemkin Village aspect, so to speak, and serious debate on major issues is deliberately minimised.
One of the weirder political events I have attended was the Big Plenary, for some Japanese Stalinists at the last DSP Asian Conference. About 10 extraordinarily well-dressed Stalinists sat stiffly on the stage while the young Japanese translator-delegate translated an hour and a quarter long address from the old Japanese Stalinist leader. When several people from the floor (including me) tried to challenge some of the political perspectives of the JPC, in the most cautious and careful way, both the translator and the Stalinist leader, to say nothing of the DSP chairperson, evinced enormous anger at the discourtesy and lese majeste involved in such questioning.
As an example, of what can be expected from the DSP in this context: at a recent conference in Indonesia, organised by the PRD (People's Democratic Party), the DSP rather inappropriately pulled on a public discussion on the nature of the Cuban political set-up, without warning the Australian International Socialists, or the US International Socialist Organisation delegates, hoping to put them at a disadvantage thereby.
Unfortunately for all concerned, this discussion was disrupted in midstream by the brutal intervention of the reactionary Indonesian state authorities, who chose that approximate time to raid the conference and deport all the international participants. I’m told the Australian ISO suggested that such a discussion of the nature of Cuban politics be held in a more relaxed, careful way, at this coming conference, but this proposal was rejected out of hand by the DSP organisers, obviously because they consider those matters too delicate to be discussed in an environment where all the participants can prepare their material properly.
And again: the campaign of the Australian Tories, and also the Blairites in the ALP, to end union influence in the Labor Party is causing very considerable public argument and struggle in the labour movement. The DSP has, so far, refused to even countenance the idea of having, at this conference, a sensible public debate on all the questions involved, with different points of view presented.
Instead they are holding a seminar on the labour movement, with one key speaker, the militant Melbourne union official Craig Johnson, who is an industrial figure not unlike Arthur Scargill in Britain, with similar politics, and similar features to Scargill, both the good features of militancy and courage, and the more negative ones of a certain leftist demagogy on questions like trade union affiliation to the ALP. The DSP have now backed him up with three other speakers, all of whom to my knowledge, share his point of view on the union-ALP question. The DSP choose to shelter behind Craig Johnson and others rather than have a serious debate on the ALP-trade union question, with different points of view presented.
This 2002 Big Conference, seems set to be the most crowded, dispersed and possibly boring they have ever held. Immediate Australian labour movement questions, and serious discussions of Marxist ideology, history and current practice in the workers’ movement, particularly in Australia, are minimised in the agenda.
The DSP has been energetically publicising the conference, but the leftist public in these parts aren’t fools, and many people outside the DSP have been to at least one of these DSP Big Events. The obvious character of the agenda, which the DSP has been distributing widely, in its usual energetic and businesslike fashion, seems to be the reason why the number of registrants is lagging.
It is very likely that the Australian participants in this conference, who will be the overwhelming majority of those present, will consist almost entirely of the DSP, its youth and its immediate periphery, and myself and a few other hardy socialist critics and opponents attempting to argue with the DSP leaders and influence the DSP members in the rather difficult conditions at this kind of hooray, party rally, type of event.
I’ve just received the final agenda for this conference. Even by the standards of the DSP, this one is a monster. On this occasion, they have 15 or 16 seminars running concurrently, in a conference where the number of registrants (and overseas participants), seems to be a little down on last time.
The big plenaries are being conducted on a carefully thought-out, new basis. There is a reporter and four or five responders, who are, in fact, other speakers, after which there will be a roundtable between the speakers, with maybe 10 minutes or so discussion from the floor at the end, which is a mind-numbingly effective device for strangling discussion from the floor, because by the end of this process there will be almost nobody left in the hall for this discussion — if it actually happens at all.
As you would be aware from your experiences in academe, this is the model used for the very worst, most reactionary and elitist academic conferences in the social sciences.
Even in the past, with six or seven seminars running concurrently, I’ve always avoided the temptation to be billed for a seminar at a DSP conference, knowing well how the organisers set up participants with minority points of view against very sexy alternatives, and I’ve always advised adherents of minority viewpoints against running their own seminars in this contrived environment.
On this occasion, it is even more direct. Each time slot has a designated Major Session in bold type, obviously directed at giving the more naive members of the DSP or Resistance the nod where to go. For instance, I don’t give Phil Griffiths, the US ISO, Martin Thomas, or Tad Tietze much chance of getting an audience when they are up against Dale McKinley and Nina Benjamin on South Africa, as the major session, and yourself and Pierre Rousset, on the Anti-capitalist Left in Europe.
The DSP leaders have looked after yourself, Rousset from the LCR, their perennial US allies like Caroline Lund, Michael Albert, and other Stars — you are all in big plenaries etc. The little guys don’t have a show.
The DSP apparatus has now taken the science of running these conferences to the level almost of a Machiavellian and Jesuitical high art. When challenged about any of it, they talk about an embarrassment of riches in people wanting to give seminars, and ultimately assert that it’s their conference anyway, which is of course true.
They pay a certain price for the way they orchestrate these events because many people on the left only expose themselves to one experience of such a conference, and never go again, and this pattern of once-bitten, hesitancy about going again is also reflected in a fairly high turnover of overseas speakers. Nevertheless, groups with which the DSP has some political relationship, like the LCR in France, Barry Shepherd etc in the USA, Sonny Melencio and others from the Philippines, and now Faroq Tariq in Pakistan, return fairly regularly.
In Australia, outside the DSP, it’s mainly people like myself, with a specific political purpose, who stubbornly return time after time, and I must admit, I only ever go for part of the weekend, mainly to make political interventions, do my pamphleteering, and meet some of the overseas and interstate delegates.
The most useful aspect of these conferences, from my point of view, is that they bring together the DSP activists from all over Australia, enabling me to distribute my political material to them.
Another useful aspect is a little bit tied in with the conferences’ Potemkin Village aspect. The DSP devotes considerable effort and expense to bringing delegates from a variety of leftist movements, particularly in the Asian region, partly to impress its own members, and partly in pursuit of its project of setting up some kind of international formation, in which it will be the central force. This function of bringing together these assorted leftist groupings in the region is useful.
Many of these overseas groups are in transition, struggling to develop the socialist project in adverse conditions, often in countries where revolutionary prospects are immediate and real despite government repression. In my experience, quite a few of these groups are of Stalinist ideological background, but that obviously doesn’t exhaust the question of the possible direction of their future development.
I share with the DSP the view that it is very important to try and have serious political discussions with these real revolutionary organisations in the region, and for Australian leftists to try to internationalise themselves by attempting to get an understanding of the problems and issues facing socialists in the rest of Asia and the world.
Unfortunately this kind of attempt to understand circumstances in other environments can only work one way at these DSP conferences, because the exotic and sectarian DSP version of the Australian labour movement and circumstances is so far removed from Australian reality that the knowledge and understanding of Australia of the participants from leftist organisations in other countries is rarely improved much by attendance at these events.
The extraordinary cost of bringing many of these overseas delegates is shouldered by the DSP, which is why it is my impression that it is always touch and go whether they break even on these conferences. They have a problem in this respect. The cost of the overseas delegates dictates a fairly high fee for the conference, which tends to deter students and others who are not stubborn adherents of the DSP, and the cost and the mind-numbing nature of the event combine to make it always a battle for the DSP to get the required attendance, even among its own adherents. It is a commentary on the stubborness and efficiency of the DSP in these matters that it usually gets within cooee of breaking even, even in these difficult circumstances of its own creation.
About four years ago, the Militant people brought Peter Taafe here, and I attended a small meeting for him in the Trades Hall, and went to the pub with them afterwards. I found Taafe bizarre. He had all Gerry Healy’s stage proletarian stylistic characteristics without the certain substance that enabled Healy to get away with his performances.
In those days, I was arguing, as I still do, that what is required in the international Trotskyist movement is a serious, horizontal public discussion between the leaderships and the memberships of all the groups in an attempt to ultimately achieve some dialectical resolution of some questions. I tried to make the point to Taafe, both in the meeting, and in the pub, that in Britain, for instance, where the Militant, and your organisation, the SWP, are both substantial organisations, both are a major, and possibly total, obstacle to either becoming hegemonic, and each is unlikely to definitively eclipse the other, which circumstance is, in my mind, one of the major imperatives that dictates the necessity of a serious discussion between all the groups.
You can have no idea how often adherents of the different groups in Australia speculate about the numerical size of the larger British groups. They chronically tend to exaggerate the size of their own outfit and minimise the others, and they do this on the basis of no serious evidence or information at all. I’ve just become aware of some oddball Trotsky watcher on the internet, who from time to time publishes estimates, and discusses other people’s estimates, of the sizes of the British groups, and possibly some slightly more real information might emerge from this discussion. Who knows!
I got very short shrift, as you might imagine, from a rather bellicose and cranky Taafe, expressed in the crudest way. His main argument was that his outfit was proletarian, and the British SWP was petty bourgeois, and that was that, and therefore, “so what, about the numbers”.
Smaller groups send emissaries to Australia from time to time. A few years ago, a Spartacist representative from the United States expelled all the Australian Spartacists from the international Spartacist Tendency, and made them reapply for membership. These days, David North and assorted international leaders of his rump Healy grouping occasionally hold international meetings in Australia, but these events are totally internal and secret, which is a bit of a commentary on both the way that group has retreated into itselva nd the web, and a reflection of cold northern hemisphere winters, and the relative cheapness of international travel. Possibly it is pleasanter, cheaper and more convenient for them to get together in Australia than in any other location.
Is it useful to attempt to impose a general and extremely rigid international perspective, formulated in the first instance, by the SWP leadership in London, on Marxist groups overseas?
I have been carefully following the very serious discussion in the IS Tendency internationally, about the nature of the current period, and, as an old Marxist internationalist, this important discussion has focussed my mind on the historic problems of Marxist internationalism, as refracted through the immediate issues of the current period.
I get information partly from hard copy material selected by people I know who surf the web regularly, and from internal bulletins which I acquire, one way or another. As you possibly know, I produced a document commenting on the internal discussion in the Australian ISO and the IS Tendency internationally, because this discussion and upheaval seemed to me to be a serious expression of real arguments and issues, which are of burning importance to all of us in the Trotskyist tradition.
Happily, our tradition is rapidly becoming the only continuing current in the (for the time being) seriously reduced Marxist movement on a global scale. As a Marxist in the Trotskyist tradition, it pleases me that some of us have lived to see off Stalinism, so to speak, but I sometimes feel, as a stubborn old revolutionary socialist, the unwelcome appropriateness of the old saw: “would the last to leave please turn off the lights”.
Of course, it’s not quite as bad as that, and I am doggedly devoted to the project of a systematic and modern reinvention of the Marxist, socialist, revolutionary enterprise in current conditions, but it does not seem at all useful, to blind ourselves to the present crisis and relative decline of the Marxist movement and the pursuit of the socialist project, compared with some periods in the past.
I have been amazed by the burning insistence of the leadership of the British SWP on the proposition that there is currently a generalised, fairly rapidly developing, global radicalisation. On the basis of this proposition, you have imposed that primary perspective on the organisations in your international current and you have not drawn back from throwing out the US ISO and intervening sharply in split situations to carve out groups in each country that will follow this urgent orientation imposed fairly mechanically in all countries more or less independent of specific circumstances.
My first reaction to these developments is to think that your current organisational procedures are unwise, and John Molyneux’s extreme sensitivity to the new Rosmer book, underlines the similarity of your organisational interventions, particularly to the Zinoviev leadership of the early Comintern. (Those familiar with Australian labour history, also find it interesting, in comparison with the constant interventions of the later Stalinised Comintern in the Australian CP, which are well-documented, and on which I comment in my piece on the ISO discussion.)
The proliferation of these kinds of interventions in the Trotskyist international groupings underlinesto me the importance of studying, among other things, how this tradition developed under Zinoviev in the Comintern, and how it related to Zinoviev’s codification of an exaggerated Leninism and overstated democratic centralism, in his book on the history of the Bolshevik Party, written when he was part of the Triumvirate, and reprinted by Gerry Healy in the 1970s.
At the Gleebooks launch of Counteraction I overheard your final throwaway remark, to the rather bumptious young organiser of Socialist Alternative, that “Mick was always an Australian exceptionalist”. Well, in that sense, anyone with half a brain in the Marxist movement here is an Australian exceptionalist.
The Stalinist Comintern, accused the so-called CPA right wing of Kavanagh and Ryan of Australian exceptionalism in 1929, etc, etc. International socialist leaderships that get worked up attacking Australian exceptionalism, or most other exceptionalisms for that matter, are usually, in my experience, trying to impose a generalised, often crackpot, international line without much reference to specific reality in the countries concerned.
In this context, have you seen the small pamphlet by Mick Armstrong, Sandra Bloodworth and Marc Newman, Lenin and the Party: Debunking the Myths. Despite political disagreements I have with Socialist Alternative, this small pamphlet is the best short statement of the actual history of the idea of the Leninist party, and an attempt to apply the idea realistically to current circumstances. It is obviously derived from the earlier, more libertarian Leninist conceptions of the IS Tendency, rather than the current Zinovievist practice of the leadership of the IS International Tendency. This pamphlet deserves a wide readership amongst serious Marxists with an interest in these questions.
Stepping aside, for a while, from these organisational questions, which are important, and have an underlying significance in the British SWP’s stubborn advocacy of its rigid global radicalisation perspective, it is important to evaluate the perspective itself. For a start, why does a political perspective have to be tautly constructed globally, with the same approach required essentially for all countries.
In a general way, Marxists try, within the limits of their resources, to study and monitor the world capitalist economy because economic developments obviously have an enormous bearing on Marxist political perspectives.
Despite the persistence of organic elements of crisis in the global capitalist set-up, the past 30 years have not brought a generalised economic collapse like the 1930s, although there have been lesser crises, and the underlying tendency of the system to crisis still persists. So far, Lenin’s point that, in the absence of a Marxist leadership leading an overthrow of the system, the system usually survives, has characterised the whole economic period of capitalism since the end of World War II. It seems to me (having done so myself, for a period, under the influence of Gerry Healy) that constantly pointing to elements of crisis in the system, with the political implication that capitalism is about to fall over, is a futile exercise, and often advanced to obscure the immediate political and tactical problems of Marxist movements in the expectation that a voluntaristic activism will solve the political problems because the crisis is upon us.
Tom O’Lincoln’s very specific demolition of this kind of thing in the recent Australian ISO internal bulletins, seems to me quite definitive and unanswerable. (Which is why no one in fact tried to answer his points.) In my own assessment, I commented fairly sharply on Tom Barnes’s economic crisis-mongering, and I had a bit of a go at Ann P’s political crisis-mongering at the ISO public meeting on Argentina, at which she projected the fairly immediate possibility of a socialist revolution in Argentina, and also that what was happening in Argentina was a very likely medium-term probability in Australia.
At the level of the capitalist economy, one striking feature of global capitalism is that developments in countries and regions sometimes proceed out of sync with each other.
It has been clear for many years, that recessions and mini-booms don’t necessarily happen in all countries and regions at the same time. It is also pretty clear that the consumption aspect of capitalism, and the speculative real estate aspect, particularly in the advanced capitalist countries, often moderate and buffer recessions.
For instance, the localised crisis in Argentina, which is having horrendous impact on the lives of the Argentine masses, is not all that dissimilar to a similar Argentine upheaval 15 years ago, and has something in common with economic crises in Brazil, Mexico and South East Asia over the past few years, none of which precipitated the socialist revolution.
It does not seem, at this point, that the Argentine crisis is going to culminate in the socialist revolution either, however much we might hope that that might be the case. In that sense, Anne P’s urgency at the Argentine meeting tends to make Marxists sound like political Jehovahs Witnesses, predicting the imminent Second Coming of Jesus Christ. The problem with such an approach in politics is that it is usually refuted by events when the imminent crisis does not occur, and it’s not much use in the sphere of religion either, because the Second Coming of Christ doesn’t happen.
People who adopt that methodology, in either politics or religion, then have to refine their predictions and assign new dates in the future, and after a while the predictions of these prophets impress very few people, although it is surprising how apocalyptic formations in both spheres manage to persist a bit, making new recruits who aren’t too familiar with past apocalyptic predictions. A temptation to believe in a coming apocalypse has a certain objective basis in the human condition.
It seems more useful to me that, rather than pontificating too much about a general world phenomenon it’s more useful to examine the world by regions, and even by countries. Obvious regions in the advanced capitalist part of the world are: Western Europe; the US and Canada; Japan; and South-East Asia, Indonesia and Australia-New Zealand, which are to some extent grouped by geography, trade and migration.
Political developments and radicalisations, can’t be separated from the present state of the capitalist economy, and in particular the relationship of class forces in society.
So far, the sharpest expressions of any recent radicalisations in the above four regions have been in Western Europe and Indonesia. In Western Europe there have been large and militant, primarily youthful, demonstrations against globalisation. The majority of the participants in these demonstrations seem to come from Italy, Greece and Germany, and lesser numbers from Britain and France.
There have also been some substantial strikes and mobilisations in the working class in France over the past seven years, and right now, as demonstrated by the enormous three-million-strong demonstration in Rome, there is a substantial proletarian mobilisation in Italy in defence of the economic and industrial gains of the Italian working class against the economic and social program of the reactionary Berlusconi government.
The contradiction is that these demonstrations, and the industrial upheavals in France and Italy, take place in an environment in which, in most of the rest of Western Europe, industrial strikes are at a relatively low level compared with the past, and paradoxically the unions in most countries now are numerically weaker. This, of course, may be a situation in which the radicalisation of youth, and the industrial mobilisations in France and Italy, are running ahead of a radicalisation of the working class in the rest of Western Europe.
However, if you view these events through the prism of 1968-69, the 1968 youth and student mobilisation in France almost immediately precipitated a massive accompanying general strike of the French proletariat, by far the biggest in French history, for long-overdue social and economic demands, which was only diverted from a revolutionary outcome by the malign domination of French Stalinism over the French labor movement.
In Italy the youth radicalisation precipitated the spectacular “hot autumn” of 1969, which also included industrial upheavals of historic proportions. In Britain the youth radicalisation also had an influence, although more delayed, in sharpening the unofficial industrial upheavals that culminated in the events of 1974, in a labour movement with enormous trade union institutional influence, and very substantial networks of union stewards throughout British industry.
Viewed historically, it is unwise to exaggerate the character of the current radicalisation in Western Europe. It is obviously imperative for socialists to try to intervene in all the anti-globalisation demonstrations, and particularly, as well, in the enormous industrial mobilisation in Italy.
In most of the rest of Western Europe, Britain in particular, one of the main tasks is to direct the attentions of the people who make up the anti-globalisation radicalisation to the obvious tasks in the labour movement and the working class. Without a proletarian mobilisation, the socialist revolution is obviously an impossibility.
Another problem that presents itself forcibly to me is a socioeconomic-political one. Watchers of popular television are familiar with the proliferating Survivor, Sex and the City, Ibiza and other shows, which observe (and obviously reify) the social attitudes of a lot of young people. The people in those shows, both working-class and middle-class, are politically conformist, opportunistic, job-, entertainmen-t and relationshi- oriented, and hardly at this point revolutionary.
I run a tourist attraction (my well-known bookshop in an entertainment district) through which pour backpackers of all parts from Western Europe, particularly from Britain, and also from the US and even Asia (because we are in the Rough Guide to Sydney). In quieter moments, I often start conversations with backpackers and exchange students about where they come from, and I usually try to steer the conversation around to politics. Occasionally I strike a slightly leftist person, but the vast majority of them seem to have preoccupations very similar to the people in Survivor etc, and these are the youth of Western Europe, who backpack around Australasia.
Maybe the political radicals stay at home, but my impression, factoring in what we know about the Western European economies, their sluggishness, but still relative prosperity and what I have seen of the Western European youth, the following is really the current situation:
In addition, so far this radicalisation is only one factor in a situation dominated by the modernising opportunism generated by the still (at a day to day level) practically functioning capitalist economy, which preoccupies the consciousness of most younger people. Also, this radicalisation has not as yet, even in Western Europe (outside Italy, and to a lesser extent, France) made a very big impact in the labour movement and the working class, compared with several periods in the past.
None of this is an argument for not trying to influence the radicalisation. That is obviously critical for Marxists, but it seems to me that, in many countries, the kind of orientation the IS had in a similar, but bigger radicalisation in the late 1960s and early 1970s is more appropriate to a simple adaptation to the so-far limited scope, and still relatively low political level, of the current anti-globalisation radicalisation.
Tony Cliff’s useful autobiography describes (in a slightly self-serving way) how the IS Tendency used to, in the 1960s and the 1970s, deliberately turn its student recruits towards the labour movement and the working class. I believe that was correct then, and it is correct now, and I don’t see the utility of exaggerating the sweep of the current radicalisation, and glossing over its problems, particularly the problem of how little impact so far this radicalisation has on the bulk of the population in most countries.
Given the global dominance of US imperialism, and the sheer motive power of the US and Canadian economies, the most powerful engines of world capitalism, it is important to look in a serious way at the United States, and the radicalisation there. The big demonstration in Seattle two years ago was the major initial global manifestation of the existence of a modest new radicalisation, and at that point it was of considerable significance because it had both student and trade union elements in a very militant demonstration. The imitation effect, precipitated by the modern mass media, produced a healthy desire in radicals throughout the world to try to do something like what had been done in Seattle.
It is important to look at Seattle in proportion. It was the first thing of its type for some years, and it was large. Nevertheless, on the scale of the population of North America, it wasn’t enormous, and subsequent mobilisations in North America, even before the destruction of the World Trade Centre towers, have not been nearly as large as Seattle.
The British SWP leadership has made a kind of scapegoat of the American ISO, claiming, it seems to me quite unreasonably, that organisation did not mobilise as it should for several subsequent demonstrations, with a kind of inference that these demonstrations might even have been larger if the US ISO had been more vigorous. Ho, hum!
September 11, 2001, changed the situation in the United States much more dramatically than September 11, 2000, changed the situation in Australia. The horrific nature of the events, and the use made of them by US ruling circles, led to an explosion of nationalistic patriotism unprecedented in US history since the start of the Korean War. For the past six months it has been quite obvious that radicals in the US have been grimly swimming against the stream of this explosion of nationalism.
Public manifestations of radicalisation, demonstrations, etc, particularly in opposition to the Afghan War of US imperialism, have been relatively small, nothing like, for instance, the public manifestations of opposition to the Gulf War, or US interventions in Central America.
For the moment, it seems futile to talk about any massive radicalisation in the US. At this time such a massive radicalisation in North America does not exist. To base a political strategy in North America on a non-existent mass radicalisation is absurd. For the time being, radicals and leftists in the US are in an extremely defensive situation, although this will change in due course.
The reality of the current situation in the US underlines the dangers inherent in lightly projecting a one-size-fits-all rigid global perspective. Obviously, at this moment, Western Europe and North America are considerably out of sync, to say nothing of Japan and Australasia. It is still reasonable to project the probability of a slowly speeding up radicalisation in Western Europe in the medium term, but it’s flying in the face of reality to do exactly the same thing for North America, or even Australasia and Japan.
Defensive tasks, in conditions of a reactionary wave, are a test for the courage, skill and realism of revolutionary organisations, which sometimes can build and grow in the teeth of reactionary developments. From what I’ve seen of the literature of the US ISO, it has conducted an exemplary agitation, given the conditions prevailing in the United States, and it seems to have made some gains from this activity.
It’s important, however, to look at these things realistically, and not to confuse the tasks necessary in the conditions of a reactionary wave with those necessary in other conditions.
It is conventional and received wisdom, in both bourgeois economic circles, and socialist circles, that Japan is the sick man of the capitalist world. The Japanese economy has been technically bankrupt for some years. Japanese consumer spending is steadily dropping, bankruptcies of firms and general economic instability are at an all-time high, unemployment is rising.
All the classical factors of capitalist economic crisis have been maturing for a number of years. Right now most economic commentators are focussing on the business balance date in a few days, when the technical bankruptcy of Japanese capitalism will be demonstrated even further.
What is striking, however, about the Japanese economy, and its extraordinary relationship with its main debtor, the United States, is the way the ruling circles of the capitalist world, including the ruling circles of Japan, have so far managed to avoid a cataclysmic collapse of the system, by what would have seemed in the past a series of fantastic improvisations.
The Japanese economy may very well come tumbling down, or it may send the US economy into spectacular recession. But the surprising thing is that, given the unprecedented improvisations in the economic arrangements of the Japanese ruling class, that the whole Japanese set-up hasn’t collapsed dramatically these last several years. Year after year of negative interest rates without an economic collapse is a phenomenon unprecedented in the history of capitalism.
Empirical observation of the fact that previously unprecedented improvisations have staved off a Japanese collapse for quite a few years suggests that the likely continuation, and even expansion, of similar improvisations may well postpone a global economic showdown caused by Japan for some time yet. It would obviously be silly to completely exclude the possibility of a global meltdown precipitated by the collapse of the Japanese economy, but from the point of view of short and medium-term political perspectives, it’s extremely unwise and impractical to base your orientation on the more or less explicit assumption that such a showdown will happen in the immediate future.
At the political level, there is little sign yet, in Japan, of the sort of social or political radicalisation in which socialists might get a rapid response. In point of fact, manifestations of radical activity are much lower than in a number of previous, less economically explosive, periods in Japan. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Japan had an enormous, vocal and radical student movement, and for parts of that period an extremely radical labour and trade union movement. There was even a very considerable mobilisation of peasants against the building of Narita Airport.
Nothing on that scale exists now, and there is little sign of such developments reviving much in Japan yet. (In parentheses, you should have seen those extraordinarily right-wing, besuited, hierarchical, formal delegates from the Japanese Communist Party [JCP], who attended the last DSP Big Conference three years ago. They seemed to me the most right-wing Stalinists on earth, and bore powerful physical resemblance to high-powered representatives of a multinational corporation.) Once again, the one-size-fits-all perspective, for an immediate global radicalisation, seems to have skipped Japan, despite the over-ripe nature of the Japanese capitalist economic crisis.
It is useful, in one way, to link developments in Australia to developments in South-East Asia because there are considerable economic links between Australia and South-East Asia, and rapidly increasing social links through migration. There certainly are radicalisations in a number of South-East Asian countries, although in some of them they are severely repressed by the bourgeois state.
The fall of the Suharto regime in Indonesia, precipitated by a massive popular mobilisation, the successful achievement of independence by the East Timorese masses, constant radical mobilisations in the Philippines, and struggles rumbling under the surface in the very repressive Malaysian set-up, all reflect obvious and powerful radical social movements, and they certainly destabilise the capitalist system.
The capitalist economies of those regions contain large elements of economic crisis of a rather immediate sort. The political upheavals in South East Asia have some impact in Australia and New Zealand. The economic turmoil, from time to time also, has some economic impact on Australia and New Zealand.
Australia and New Zealand are relatively modern capitalist economies, with some features stemming from their beginnings in the 19th century as colonial-settler states. The Australian bourgeoisie, over the past 30 years, has presided over the liquidation of previous protectionist arrangements, and this has led to a decline in manufacturing industry.
On the other hand, Australia in general, and Sydney in particular, have developed spectacularly as international financial centres and service centres for the whole Asian region. Mass migration has doubled the combined population of the two countries since the 1960s, from about 12 million to about 24 million.
For political purposes it’s useful to treat Australia and New Zealand as one political region because the economies are totally intertwined, the language is pretty well the same, and there is free movement of people between the two countries, with a steady drain of population from the more agricultural New Zealand to the more urban Australia, particularly to Sydney. The political circumstances are similar, with the existence of a mass Labor Party and one significant leftist competitor, the Greens in Australia, and two significant leftist competitors, the Alliance and the Greens in New Zealand.
Despite the inherent instability stemming from Australia’s difficult position in a trading sense, in a world increasingly divided into competing trading blocs, the Australian economy is booming. The low Australian dollar has produced an improved situation for Australian primary products, both mining and agricultural, internationally.
Consumer spending is high, and a real-estate boom, particularly in Sydney, but to a lesser extent in most larger urban parts of the region, have contributed to a still-booming economy. In addition to this, many firms functioning in Asia choose Sydney as their operating base for the region.
The brutal introduction of a GST, which transferred a large part of the cost of running capitalism from personal taxation to the direct shoulders of the working class and the large Australian petty bourgeoisie, accelerated a trend driving out of business a lot of marginal small capitalist concerns, and for a period produced a very substantial political swing against the Tory government, which introduced it. Unhappily, this swing was overwhelmed by the events of September 11, and the Australian Tories used brutal, but effective wedge politics about asylum seekers to get themselves out of trouble and help them scrape over the line by a whisker in the federal election.
Economically, the GST depressed business for about a year, both sides of its introduction, which happened to coincide roughly with the Olympics, which also, paradoxically, depressed business in the short term, although its medium- and long-term effects on Australia were probably economically advantageous. Nevertheless, the economy has recovered from the impact of the GST, and the shakeout that it caused and unemployment is in fact dropping slightly, and consumer spending is up.
A certain new stage of political radicalisation in Australia has started to develop over the past three years or so, from a very modest initial base. A limited popular mobilisation took place a couple of years ago, in successful defence of the watersiders' union, against a major attempt to smash the union. In the year 2000, a determined and militant mobilisation of some thousands took place against the World Capitalist Talk Shop in Melbourne, just before the Olympics.
On May 1, 2001, a big demonstration of 4000 or 5000 took place in Sydney and smaller ones in other cities. After Bush’s declaration of War on the World, there were modest-sized demonstrations against the war, the largest of which were about 3000 or 4000 in Sydney and Melbourne. This year, there was a very modest demonstration, at the postponed CHOGM meeting at Coolum, not far from Brisbane in Queensland.
In the 1996 federal election, a reactionary Queensland backwoodswoman with red hair, called Pauline Hanson was de-selected by the Liberals only days before the election for making ferocious racist statements. As an independent, she comfortably won the mixed outer-suburban seat based on Ipswich, which had previously been a Labor seat, and went on to form a reactionary, populist, racist, right-wing movement, which had initial popularity in depressed regional areas and provincial cities, and outer suburbs around some cities, although not around Melbourne.
At its peak, this development was rather threatening, politically speaking. There were substantial demonstrations organised by the left against Pauline Hanson’s racism over the whole period.
When the asylum seeker issue erupted in 2001 there were similar mobilisations to the ones against Hanson in defence of asylum seekers, and over this whole period from 1996 until now such mobilisations have continued although not of massive size. The Hanson electoral movement peaked several years ago in a Queensland state election, but ever since, it has been politically split and in decline, partly because the reactionary Liberal mainstream conservative party has adopted many of its chauvinist policies and rhetoric.
During the federal election, despite the popularity of Howard’s chauvinism, with some more backward sections of the population, a large and growing minority, initially from the middle sectors of society, were angered and outraged by the racism and inhumanity of the government’s wedge politics about asylum seekers, and the ALP leadership’s capitulation to that policy.
In the election, despite the chauvinist atmospher after the World Trade Centre attacks, the Liberals only just scraped in, and Labor got 48.5 per cent of the preferred vote. (In Australia, voting is compulsory, and 95 per cent of the population votes, unlike Britain and the US.) Under the Australian preferential system, and proportional representation for the senate, tactical voting is possible, and a large, mainly radical, middle-class minority swung their first preference vote from Labor to the Greens in anger against the chauvinist capitulation of the Labor leadership about asylum seekers.
This anger against chauvinism has continued and grown since the federal election. To most observers’ surprise, Labor won the election in South Australia, giving Labor government in all the six states and the two territories. A widespread revolt has developed in the ALP on the asylum seeker question, and last weekend enormous demonstrations on the question took place in all major cities, by far the largest leftist demonstrations since the anti-nuclear mobilisations in the early 1980s.
It is reasonable to assert that there has recently commenced a radicalisation in Australia, by comparison with the recent past, the period from about 1985 to about 1998. So far, however, this radicalisation is extremely modest. It is at this point very small indeed, by comparison with the radicalisation of the 1960s and 1970s.
It is not at this stage accompanied by any significant mobilisation in the working class, where trade union density has dropped steadily for 25 years. Strike levels are at an all-time low, and immediate tasks in the labour movement are essentially defensive.
A defensive struggle is going on in the Labor Party and the trade unions of a rather confused sort against a very deliberate push from the Tories, the ruling class, and the most Blairite forces in the ALP to eliminate trade union influence from he Labor Party, and right now there is a big public discussion in the labour movement and in the press on these questions.
The largest far-left group, the rather confident, belligerent sect, the DSP, which is organising the conference at which you are speaking is ,objectively speaking, supporting the push of the bourgeoisie to drive the unions out of the Labor Party. I was rather alarmed to note, in the most recent Socialist Worker an interview with yourself, on the left-hand side of a centre-page spread, which seemed to support the idea of the unions in Britain leaving the Labour Party, and on the opposite side an article by Brian Webb, discussing the Labor for Refugees phenomenon, but concluding with the demand that people should leave the Labor Party (to build the ISO).
I hope I am a bit oversensitive to the juxtaposition of these two articles. In my view, you would be very wise, having lobbed in Australia, to do a bit of a crash course in getting a realistic picture of the present contours of the Australian workers’ movement, and the actual circumstances of the radicalisation, as it actually is. You might even exert a little gentle pressure on the DSP organisers of the conference to have a sensible public discussion of all the social forces and issues that are now in play in the Labor Party and the trade unions.
I’m hopeful that you are not tempted to make a crude intervention in favour of union disaffiliation, but I’m not holding my breath in this respect, in view of a sudden apparent lurch in support of disaffiliation by the Australian ISO, which had previously opposed it. I can only associate this apparent lurch, in part, to the prospect of your imminent arrival on these shores.
Universities in Australia went back into term about three weeks ago. I am reliably informed, by different activists of my acquaintance that ,if anything, responses to radical initiatives in Orientation Week, and during the first couple of weeks of term, were a little down on last year, although not disastrously so considering the impact of September 11.
Nevertheless, all the indicators are that responses to the radicals were on the significant but relatively modest scale of the last few years. In Sydney, by far the strongest student group at most universities are evangelical Christians, who are considerably more obvious numerically than active radicals. Most students, including most students from the Third World, of whom there are many in Australian universities (both temporary students and migrants) appear to have their heads down and to be dominated by the urge to succeed in the capitalist world. Courses like accounting, business studies, computing, etc are packed, and exceedingly multi-ethnic.
On the basis of these observations, it seems to me to be flying in the face of reality to exaggerate the scale of the radicalisation amongst students, although manifestations of radicalisation are generally greater amongst students than they are yet in most other places in Australian society. Radical students are a healthy minority in the general student population, but they are, to some extent still swimming against the stream.
If this is not the case in Australia (which it seems to me that it is) these observation of mine can only be refuted by empirical evidence. Pious assertions that the radicalisation will dramatically increase at some unstated time in the immediate future (because of the “impending economic crisis”) are not any use at all.
From this point of view, I’m very much on the side of your excommunicated American heretics, the US ISO, who you attack so ferociously, for organising seminars on the revolutionary ideas of Karl Marx during the Nader electoral campaign. It seems to me that, in the set of circumstances I’ve just described (my appraisal is an accurate one) socialists in universities should engage in energetic agitation, to mobilise and win over the radical minority.
A necessary centrepiece of this agitation should be a struggle for the theory of Marxism, and to interest students in the history of the labour movement, to introduce them directly to notions of the class struggle and to such actual ongoing struggles as emerge. This kind of work in universities, it seems to me, is likely to carve out a significant socialist minority, which is what is possible at this stage of developments.
There is a modest radicalisation, as demonstrated by the series of demonstrations mentioned earlier, particularly the recent Palm Sunday demonstrations. The anti-globalisation demonstrations have, by and large, been composed of youth drawn from the new docial layers. There has been relatively little participation by the organised working class, except at S11 in Melbourne, which happened to coincide with some normal trade union stop-work meetings.
The participants from the new social llayers in the more militant S11 and M1 demonstrations are often the kind of relatively unorganised people who participate in Wilderness demonstrations and such things as Reclaim the Streets. At the political level, insofar as some of these people are drawn into politics, they tend to support the Greens, and they are not at this stage attracted to socialist politics or to the labour movement, for that matter.
The older people, also mainly drawn from intermediate social layers, who made up the bulk of the very large Palm Sunday demonstrations, seem also to be oriented towards the Greens or even the Democrats, politically, and (despite the vigorous participation of socialist groups in the demonstrations) most of these people are not, or are no longer, particularly attracted to socialist politics or the labour movement.
It follows from this that the so-far modest radicalisation has a contradictory character. The current crisis in the traditional labour movement is influenced a bit by this radicalisation, but it is also produced by a crisis of relevance internal to the labour movement.
For a generally Marxist approach to the underlying class forces in society, the crisis in the organised working class movement, the labour movement is of the utmost strategic and practical importance. The labour movement is also my particular sphere of radical activity and interest, and I have been polemicising consistently against the practice of much of the far left, particularly the DSP, which involves completely ditching the necessary united front in the workers’ movement, and, in particular with the DSP, leads them to give defacto support to the current strategic objectives of the ruling class, which are clearly to attempt to eliminate union influence in the ALP.
All of these things dictate a complex tactical approach by Marxists, including an attempt to influence the new elements in this radicalisation, combined with a vigorous attempt to resist all the pressures building up to push the traditional labour movement definitively, structurally, to the right. (I discuss these tactical questions at greater length elsewhere.)
My polemical pamphleteering, including long quotes and comments from books and other documents that reflect on issues in the socialist movement, is how I choose to contribute intellectually in attempting to resolve the current crisis of the movement. It is also a convenient way of gradually knocking together material, for a book of social theory on the questions that seem of crucial importance to me.
In justification of my pamphleteering, I can do no better than reprint the following long quote from the dedicated doctor, and old member of the British SWP, the late David Widgery, from the introduction to his wonderful book, The Left in Britain 1956-1968, which is incomparably the best collection of material bearing on the history of the British workers movement in the period covered.
“The idea for this book came when I woke up, nearly smothered under a shale of Labour Workers and China Reconstructs. A bookshelf had collapsed. I was living in a room three-quarters filled with heaps of the leaflets, pamphlets and newspapers of the far Left, which I had bought from bookshop backrooms and hauled out of litter bins after demonstrations. Like a lot of people who decided they were Marxists in the middle-1960s, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was in a political orphanage. So I had collected a bedroom museum of left-wing literature in an attempt to unravel my own political parentage. Fascinated and repelled I pored over unspeakably bitter polemics, marvelled at the Declarations of International Executive Committees, cross-checked Internal and External Bulletins, and tried to marry them all up with what little fact and history there is, of the modern labour movement. Along the way I found out that the authors of the polemical savageries were actually quite good friends, the International Executive was actually a couple of blokes in Clapham and that nobody reads Internal Bulletins much anyhow.
“This amateur research also convinced me that these grubby, despised and ridiculed sheets, typed and printed by the authors themselves, and hawked hand to hand down the teeming alleys of the sectaries, actually offered, for all their bombast and low comedy, a more penetrating view of how modern capitalism operates, than several hundred Professors of Sociology (Marxist or otherwise), Fleet Street editorialists, TV news-readers and other ignorant experts. It taught me how little is known about the achievements and the organisation of the post-war working class, and the ideas of the men and women who lead it. And it forced me to face up to the obscurings rendered by the Left itself, not just the straightforward dishonesties of Stalinism and the almost deliberate owlishness of the New Left (in both its young-intellectuals-really-concerned-about-the-quality-of-life phase and its present Super-Marxist era) but the distortions present in the orthodox Trotskyist version of things. So to enable me to spring-clean my room with a clear conscience, I have tried to cut away from the mounds of yellowed newsprint writing that will show something of how the working-class movement woke up, after 40 years of hibernation. The aim is to rescue the tracts, manifestos and analyses of the far Left from the contempt and restricted currency with which official society would like to treat them. It also means making available again participants’ accounts of their own struggles, told in their own words with as little doctoring as possible. It’s a working manual to be consulted, dipped into and passed on in the hope it will be of some help in the reassembling of the modern revolutionary workers’ movement. In fact because such a small group of people actually find written words convincing I half wish that it wasn’t a book at all but some species of talking poster which might express what the modern socialist movement feels like from within — its humour and music and oratory and colours and the intellectual sensations of its mentors and inventors, the autumn and granite of E.P. Thompson, the whiskey and ice of Alasdair MacIntyre or the hurdy gurdy of Tony Cliff.
“I am resigned to the fact that most professional readers (members of revolutionary organisations including my own) will feel ill-served by this book. I can only declare that I have made the best effort I am capable to be non-sectarian. I wish to give no comfort whatsoever to those tyros, theorem-provers and stamp-collectors who prefer a rote-learnt and pointless quarrel about something that happened in Korea when they were in nappies to the real problems of the present. Such people are the political equivalents of drivers going through a town centre using only their rear-view mirrors, and deserve the same fate.”
David Widgery, May 1973, in the foreword to his book The Left in Britain 1956-1968 (Peregrine/Penguin).
You probably believe you have a working knowledge of the Australian far left, but I will run through it for you to give you the benefit of what I think about it. For a start, allowing for population differences, it’s smaller than the far left in Britain. The ISO and Socialist Alternative are of comparable size, ranging around 100 members each, by any standard of membership that can be regarded as at all real. The Socialist Alternative is a good deal more realistic about its own size, while, as you know, the ISO has a bad habit of exaggerating its real membership, if you use such criteria as attendance at meetings, and political activity.Really. I can think of lots of new buildings that absolutely trump the old stuff. The old stuff we have is essentially British colonial to straight London copies.
Despite your caracature of them in your open letter to the Australian ISO, the Socialist Alternative are by no means as sectarian as you say. They are a more or less orthodox Cliffite grouping, with the political style common to all the other Cliffite groupings that you have been instrumental in thrusting into exterior darkness over the last few years.
One feature of the Socialist Alternative, vis a vis the ISO is that, with the defection of R.K. to Socialist Alternative, it includes almost all the working academics in the IS tradition in Australia who are still politically active, which is a bit of a commentary on the frantic activism that expresses itself in the Australian ISO, as a reflection of the current political line of the British SWP leadership. Adding them together, the ISO and Socialist Alternative are about half the size of the largest organisation on the far left, the DSP.
If I might make an observation about the circumstances of the international IS Tendency now, drawn from the history of the Catholic Church, it seems to me the IS Tendency is in the situation that the Catholic Church would be, if Bishop Dollinger’s Old Catholic Church, established by those opponents of Papal infallibility who did not bend the knee to Rome (as your great-grandfather, Lord Acton ultimately did) had grown to be of comparable physical and numerical size to the Catholic Church itself.
It is quite clear that internationally, the numbers of excommunicated adherents of the Cliff tendency, or groups and people possibly in the process of being excommunicated, like the ISO in Zimbabwe, are getting close to being comparable in numbers and organisations to the loyal adherents of the current line of the British SWP. (To stretch this analogy a bit further, amd add a little lightness to this discussion, in this analogy Shawki and the US ISO, and Mick Armstrong and Socialist Alternative, would be Bishop Dollinger’s Old Catholic Church, Tom O’Lincoln and the Zimbabwe ISO would be Lord Acton (bending the knee, a bit unwillingly to Rome to avoid excommunication), the British SWP leadership would be the College of Cardinals, and you, yourself would rate as the Pope who proclaimed Papal Infallibility, Pio Nono.)
The DSP has, give or take, about 300 real members, with maybe another 150 or so coming and going. Like Socialist Alternative, they are a bit more realistic about their membership than the ISO, although of course they exaggerate a bit. The 150 or so coming or going, include, on the coming side, maybe 100 in their youth group, Resistance, mainly high school students and some university students. Resistance is the recruiting arena and training ground for DSP membership.
For some time I have felt that, sooner or later I have the political responsibility of writing a short history, a kind of balance sheet, of the DSP. I’m probably the only person still active on the left who has collided with them one way and another, since their foundation, and if I don’t try my hand at a short history of the organisation, both its good features and its negative ones, who else will?
John Percy has written a small booklet about the history of the DSP based on his perennial lectures on the subject, and he is preparing a more substantial history. John’s little history has the usual defect of party histories written for the party membership by passionate defenders of the organisation. It’s not outright falsification, like for instance, Stalin’s History of the CPSU, but it is a very one-sided, self-serving account, like James P. Cannon’s History of American Trotskyism and Zinoviev’s lectures on the History of the Bolshevik Party, on which it is obviously modelled.
Incidents in the history of the organisation are recounted in the most favourable light, difficult events are often ignored, and the general tone adopted is one of self-satisfied retrospective pride in the collective wisdom of the outfit, etc.
I had hoped to finish this short balance sheet by the 2002cConference, but time will obviously beat me, so what I’ve written here is a shorter, fairly summary account, which I’ll expand somewhat in the near future. People who I’ve bombarded with my polemical pamphlets will often have noticed that they go through two or three expanding editions anyway on the basis of criticisms and corrections made by the readers, and this is, in a way, particularly appropriate to this kind of work, because I don’t claim omniscience in these matters.
What I write is on the basis of my own observations and experience, and I hope to improve and modify it on the basis of any legitimate criticisms of it, and argument with it, particularly in this case,from the comrades on whose lives and political activity I’m making the balance sheet.
The DSP is in some ways a very impressive outfit. It is a fully fledged, very efficient, home-grown Australian political sect. I call it a sect advisedly as I’ll proceed to explain. It is impressive because it has survived the past 20 years of general retreat of the whole left, but it is a sect for a number of reasons, some of them accidental, and some of them out of the control of the DSP leadership. It has remained more or less unchanged for the past 20 years in orientation and strategic approach.
It was started about 1969-70 by two brothers, John and Jim Percy, who were then very young men, of Anglo middle-class, non-labour-movement background. As it happened, I introduced them to the general ideas of Trotskyism in the turbulent antiwar and student movement of the time, and they were, for four years, my close associates in a tiny rather informal revolutionary socialist grouping, which undertook, with considerable success, enormous tasks, agitations and responsibilities in the exploding antiwar movement of the 1960s.
As can happen in that kind of situation, after some years, they became restive with my leadership, and what they perceived as their second-in-command role, and became extremely critical of my informality, and in their view, my unnecessarily raucous, oppositional, agitational style.
They soon converted themselves holus bolus, to a very literal version of the organisational formulas of James P. Cannon (to whose books I had introduced them). They decided they wanted to get rid of me (politically speaking). One source of friction between us was that, from time to time, I gently nudged them with the idea that they should get jobs in industry or somewhere, to get a bit of rounded knowledge of the world, but that idea had little appeal to them at that point. Somewhat later John worked on the trams in Melbourne for a while, but to my knowledge, and I am willing to stand corrected if I’m wrong, Jim never had any other job than full-time political organiser, until his untimely death in his forties.
In the fashion of that time, they decided that they both wished to immediately become professional revolutionaries and build a fully fledged Cannon-type party, with a team leadership (the team at that stage consisting of the two of them). They had the support of some of the youth and I had the support of most of the slightly older activists in our informal group, so the numerical split in our rather robust, chaotic outfit was approximately even. We had an acrimonious, but ultimately reasonably civilised split and went our separate ways.
Jim and John Percy proved quite good at starting and developing an initially quite small “tight Leninist party”. Both brothers seemed to me to have rather narrow interests, and they didn’t, when I was associated with them, take much interest in the detail of the history of the Australian labour movement, in which I tried very hard to interest them.
The differences between us in temperament and underlying interests were to some extent circumstantial. I had been born into the labour movement, so to speak, and I was soaked in the lore and tradition of many past conflicts, being of Irish Catholic, labour movement background, with the involvement in Laborism going back three generations. Like many of the middle and even upper class youth radicalised in the 1960s and since, this labour movement sphere, which has been in quantitative and cultural decline since the 1960s, seemed rather alien to the Percys, although it was of passionate interest and importance to me.
Their basic interests, once aroused, focussed more on “the organisational principles of Leninism”, on building “tight parties” in which they would play the leading role, and on the internal life of the group that they desired to construct. They weren’t distracted, as I tended to be, from total preoccupation with that kind of project, by deep involvement in upheavals in the labour movement, or such things as running bookshops.
They constructed ther new organisation energetically, and the younger brother, Jim, a rather boisterous, pragmatic, ideas man, emerged as the dominant personality in the new outfit, solidly backed up by his brother, John, who was more of a plodder.
In The First Ten Years of American Communism, Jim Cannon made the following important point about the courageous American communists of the 1920s in the course of his discussion of the factionalism in the American communist movement. He pointed out that even people like Lovestone and Gitlow, who later became renegades from the socialist project, swam against the stream, with all the other pioneer communists in the important project, which seemed so exotic to the rest of American society in the 1920sof building a revolutionary socialist movement.
American society in the 1920s was in the midst of a powerful capitalist boom. As Cannon said, the early communists in that period were swimming hard against an apparently enormous stream, courageously trying to build a serious revolutionary socialist movement when most of their generation were making money in the stockmarket, and living high — even a considerable section of the working class.
I feel the same way about the people who started the DSP as Cannon did about the pioneer communists in the USA (even those who became his enemies). They were my associates as young men and women, who voluntarily became caught up in revolutionary politics during the last great upsurge, in the 1960s. One of the attractive aspects of the DSP is the way several of these people, who were young in the 1960s, have stubbornly persisted in the enterprise of trying to create an effective socialist organisation, by their lights and beliefs, throughout what has turned out to be a period of capitalist boom and decline of the socialist movement much longer than the 1920s, in fact, a period of about 30 years, compared with 10 years in the 1920s.
It’s very important to not lose sight of this, and nothing that I say in sharp political argument, polemic, disagreement or discussion with these people is intended as some kind of stupid petty bourgeois moral judgment on them. They’ve kept at it, in the way they think is right, in generally adverse conditions, for a very long time, and that deserves respect. I respect these comrades, among others, in a way that I do not respect those people who were once radicals, who have become totally absorbed in carving out success under a booming capitalism (although I think it is stupid to pass moralising individual judgement, either, on many of the people who have done that. Sometimes those people come back into political activity, and individual judgmental moralising is not much use in politics anyway. Most people are profoundly affected by the ebbs and flows in culture and society.)
In my cosmology, the people who keep at the socialist project are the people I want to talk to, and in this case argue with, about perspectives for the socialist movement.
In the 1970s and the early 1980s, as the youth radicalisation and the antiwar movement declined, the DSP recruited systematically, and early on discovered a formula that has worked well for them for the whole period of their existance, running Resistance stalls during Orientation Week in universities, and having from time to time Resistance agitations in high schools. They tended to recruit in the 1970s the slightly saner, but slightly more conservative people in the student movement, who responded better to their stylised emphasis on mass mobilisation, rather than to their main rivals in the student movement, the rhetorical ultraleft Maoists.
Ultraleft Maoist politics in the Australian student movement collapsed and died in the late 1970s, after a period of hegemony in some cities, because of its inherently unstable, rather mad, features.
The DSP survived this period and built itself up. Fairly early on, the Percy brothers inherited from their mother, and put that inheritance into their organisation, and they developed a canny and intelligent approach, and acquired a certain amount of real estate on behalf of the organisation, so it was the beneficiary (in a very small way compared with the big bourgeoisie) of the fantastic inflation in real estate values characteristic of the past 20 years. Their national headquarters is now quite valuable, and probably underpins the organisation a bit.
Ideologically speaking, the DSP started off as 110 per cent Cannonites and followers of the American SWP, with an overlay of Castroism, and an eclectic, rather platonic infatuation with revolutionary guerrillaism at a careful distance. They followed the political evolution of the American SWP extremely closely, until there was a bitter bust-up between Jim Percy and Jack Barnes, with both organisations denouncing each other despite their essentially similar eclectic politics.
By the middle of the 1980s the organisation had grown to the physical size that it is approximately today, although it has since fluctuated up a bit, or down a bit. Considering the constant decline of the rest of the left, that in itself is no mean achievement, but it has taken place at the cost of the DSP evolving into a fully fledged political sect, although of a relatively civilised sort — for a sect.
For the first period of its existence, the DSP was a Trotskyist organisation of the Cannonist sort, following in great detail the political line and practice of the US SWP. It aligned itself sharply with the US SWP in factional struggles in the United Secretariat, and Jim and Nita K, and John and others spent some time overseas in Paris and New York, soaking themselves in the factional struggles in the Trotskyist movement.
In the middle 1980s, however, Jim came into sharp conflict with Jack Barnes, the kind of conflict we have just seen between the British SWP and the US ISO in the International IS Tendency. The junior, apprentice organisation, began to challenge the senior World Centre organisation in size and influence, and there was a big bust-up, which, as is often the case in these situations, partly assumed the character of a personal conflict between Jim Percy and Jack Barnes.
The Australian SWP had already accepted the American SWP’s rejection of permanent revolution, and the “old Trotskyism”, and some young apparatchniks in the Australian SWP, like Doug Lorimer and Steve P, had shown some interest in ideology in a rather instrumental way,not dissimilar to the Red Professors under Bukharin in the Soviet Communist Party before total Stalinisation.
Jim Percy gave these apparatchik Red Professors their head, so to speak, and they constructed for the Australian SWP, which became the DSP, an extremely eclectic political mix consisting of an underlying sub-stratum of Cannon and Zinoviev, and their ideas about a tight party, with an intense emphasis on the roles and prerogatives of leadership, which were automatically assigned, of course, to Jim, John and their close associates.
The other aspect of this mix was a total capitulation to Stalinism on all questions relating to the tactics to be adopted in circumstances of revolutionary upheavals. This took the form of a rather fantastic literary attack, retrospectively, on Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution, (drawn essentially, like Jack Barnes’s, without acknowledgement, from J.V. Stalin’s Problems of Leninism).
The practical function of this exotic, eclectic mixture, of Trotskyism and Stalinism was that it seemed to the DSP leaders a good way of trying to throw off the reputation of being “sectarian factional Trotskyists”. Unfortunately it didn’t really help much in this respect because the political behaviour of the overly self-confident leadership of the DSP became more belligerent and sectarian after the “Break with Trotskyism”, rather than less.
Another feature of this flirtation with Stalinism was the discovery that the leadership of the Vietnamese CP had always been essentially serious revolutionaries, unlike the dopey Trotskyists in Vietnam who they had unfortunately murdered. A further feature of this was an infatuation with Cuba and the Sandinistas, and another feature of was the discovery, towards the end of the 1980s, that Gorbachev was essentially a socialist revolutionary, which showed, for the DSP, that a strand of revolutionary Marxist tradition and practice remained within the leadership of the CPSUB.
All these ideological revisions moving towards Stalinism took place during a period when the DSP was trying to amalgamate, first with the Stalinist SPA, and later with the rump of the CPA, but in practice none of their ideological revisions in favour of Stalinism did them any practical good. Neither marriage partner ultimately wanted to go through with the nuptuals because the other organisations were essentially afraid of the DSP’s small, but extremely effective, machine.
TO BE CONTINUED
Time beat me, and I prefer to give this document out at the 2002 Conference to whet peoples’ interest for the rest of my potted history of the DSP.