Bob Gould, 2002

Left discussion and approaches to regroupment

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

I’m just getting the hang of this web business. As an old agitator who has dished out many thousands of leaflets and documents in a long political life I’m mightily impressed by the instantaneous quality of this new medium (for me).

A couple of us work hard on putting material up on Marxmail, bust a gut getting our Ozleft website up and running, and slave into the night putting up a miscellaneous collection of material of significance to the debates, mention them on Marxmail in an interesting way and bingo, the ether is humming with serious Marxist discussion! I rather like this medium. I was a late developer in this field, but I’m a staunch convert.

Another aspect that impresses me mightily is the way a number of strands of discussion, of considerable importance, spin off in different directions, supplement each other and proceed in parallel as we commonly inform each other of important day-to-day matters, such as the necessary agitation against the seemingly imminent imperialist assault on Iraq.

I’m taken with the good-humoured catholicity of it all, and for Tom O’ Lincoln’s benefit, I’m rather awed that there’s someone in the world like Phil Ferguson who can seemingly treble my output at the press of a button. I don’t agree with a lot of what Ferguson says, but it’s well-argued and a useful counterpoint in these discussions. And my, there’s a lot of it.

Tom says he may not get to the end of my serious piece, the Open Letter to Alex Callinicos, but judging by email to Ozleft and Peter Boyle’s feverish appeal to ignore what he characterises as my attempt to sabotage the current, detailed DSP regroupment proposals, a lot of people have read it.

Peter Boyle constantly accuses me of trying to create obstacles to regroupment. I resent his insinuation that a different notion of regroupment constitutes an opposition to regroupment. That kind of attack on my views is nonsense. I’ve been advocating a broad regroupment of the socialist left for six or seven years, intertwined as it must necessarily be, if it is to succeed, with a sensible and intelligent and, dare I say it, even rather restrained, public discussion of serious questions.

The real difference between Boyle and myself is that the kind of regroupment and discussion I’m trying to precipitate is one that involves the Marxist left and left currents in the Labor Party-trade union continuum and the broad green movement, without arbitrarily constructing barriers between the Marxist groups and the others.

I’ve expressed that general proposition in a series of documents and here I quote the summary I made earlier this year in Observations on the discussion in the ISO and issues raised for the left

It follows from any serious appraisal of the current circumstances, that the following perspective is useful to any group of serious Marxists.

The Marxist groups, including the DSP, should adopt a rational strategy, summarised in a slogan like Build a Class Struggle Left Wing in the Labour Movement. A genuine attempt to build an actual class-struggle left wing, rather than the demagogic caricature of such a left wing, advocated by the DSP, would inevitably involve ditching the completely futile and destructive expose-Laborism-and-all-its-works strategy practiced by the DSP.

In sum, all the above perspectives, if practised seriously, would necessarily involve the adoption of a united front strategy towards Labor, and would also involve the Socialist groups encouraging the serious development of the Labor left, rather than regarding the Labor left as an organisational rival to be destroyed. Such a reorientation, the adoption of a thoroughgoing united front strategy, is obviously a necessary precondition for Marxist groups to be able to adopt any serious orientation towards trade unions, the organised labour movement and the working class.

A similar united front strategy should be adopted by the socialist groups towards the Greens, with the encouragement of the development of a socialist left within the Greens. Such a strategy towards the Greens should be commenced forthwith.

All activities towards building a socialist current both in the Labor Party and in the Greens should be conducted with sensitivity and discretion, taking into account bad experiences many people in the broader left have had with the past sectarianism of the far left.

In a recent post Peter Boyle suggest that a rational, public political discussion is a disruptive proposition that would blow regroupment sky-high. Is Boyle’s kind of regroupment that fragile?

The opposite is the case. An attempted regroupment without a serious political discussion will very likely prove disastrous. You have this strange situation that the two largest groups in the Socialist Alliance — the DSP and the ISO — are conducting internal discussions leading up to their respective congresses in their usual “democratic centralist” way, and the “democratic centralism” in the DSP is so structured that in his notes to DSP members as to how to present the latest DSP organisational proposals, Boyle specifically lays down the law that any incipient opposition can argue the point internally leading up to the conference, but they have to support every detail of these organisational proposals in any discussion with other people in the Socialist Alliance.

This is in a context in which the DSP is proposing to dissolve into the Socialist Alliance while maintaining its existing disciplinary structure. What a reductio ad absurdum of the Cannon-Zinoviev version of democratic centralism this is.

Without a looser, more relaxed and sensible political discussion among all the participants, that kind of environment is a recipe for very unpleasant and unclear collisions of the kind that have taken place in the past between the DSP and others.

Boyle says that I am attempting to obstruct regroupment by addressing these contradictions and difficulties, and the hysterical tone of his references to me seem to attribute to me almost supernatural capacities to obstruct the kind of regroupment he and the DSP are interested in. Wow! I’m energetic and forceful, but I think he overestimates my capacity for mischief.

On page 9 of The Activist, no 11, September 2002, in “Questions and Answers on the DSP NE’s Proposal”, Boyle writes:

“Gould is trying to split and divide the SA, poison Workers First against the DSP, etc. Desperate measures that confirm Gould is a sectarian.”

This over-reaction is genuinely eccentric. As a matter of fact, over the past few months I’ve spoken to no one in Workers First. I do talk to members of some of the groups in the Socialist Alliance. They are old associates, and we compare notes. Again, it’s attributing to me powers of persuasion beyond even my capacities to explain the fact that other organisations in the Socialist Alliance end up with positions on some of these questions similar to mine. The main thing influencing people to take these positions is obviously their own experience, although my arguments may have some effect.

Boyle’s attitude in these notes in The Activist converts disagreement with some strategic propositions of the DSP into political crime. “Poisoning Workers First against the DSP” has bizarre overtones of oppositionists allegedly poisoning the workers’ vodka in the Soviet Union, etc.

To the DSP I’m like Trotsky to Stalin or Goldstein was to The Leader in Orwell’s 1984. In real life, things are happily not as stark as that, and the audience in this discussion has the advantage over people in those other situations that they can actually read my concrete proposals in the material that I produce.

Peter Boyle’s consistent over-reaction to my propositions, and caricature of them, puzzles me. My propaganda activities must be having an impact somewhere that isn’t immediately apparent to me.

Peter Boyle obviously opposes face-to-face discussion on some major questions, in which members of the various organisations participate, particularly on strategy and tactics concerning the labour movement and the Greens.

The DSP won’t be able much longer to prevent the necessary open public discussions between the members of the various organisations on these questions.

The other aspect of Boyle’s uneasiness about a public political discussion has some merit. I believe the socialist movement has reached the point that a non-exclusionary political discussion is possible and necessary, but we do have to exercise some civility and restraint in this discussion so it doesn’t degenerate into the kind of mad point-scoring of which most of us have unpleasant memories.

In The Activist no 9, September 2002, there is a resolution from Solidarity in the US on regroupment, and I would commend this resolution to Peter Boyle and the DSP for close study. Allowing for the fact that my knowledge of all the political circumstances in the US discussed in this document is incomplete, I find myself in general agreement with the thrust and the detail of Solidarity’s proposal. The DSP has done us a service in publishing this resolution in The Activist.

I’m not against regroupment. I favour regroupment, but in the kind of framework suggested in the Solidarity resolution. I take strong note of Louis Proyect’s obvious concern that such discussion shouldn’t degenerate on Marxmail and I have rapidly become so addicted to the Marxmail discussion that I strongly support Louis’s pleas for civility, despite the fact that from time to time I can have a rather sharp tone myself.

It is interesting that what attracted the most immediate attention in my letter to Alex Callinicos was a small anecdote about a political debate in Jakarta. That underlines the general point about the desirability of having civilised political discussions in the less threatening environments of Sydney, Melbourne, etc.