Bob Gould, 2002

The DSP's plan to dissolve into the Socialist Alliance
Can the leopard change its spots?

Source: Self-published pamphlet and Marxmail, September 6-11, 2002
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

Nigel Irritable raises some legitimate questions about the DSP’s announcement of its plan to dissolve into the Socialist Alliance. Two important questions are why now and why the haste?

Jose Perez has responded enthusiastically on Marxmail to this proposal, but elsewhere Jose and others have sketched out a comprehensive critique of Cannon and the Cannonist party concept.

Everything in the internal life of the DSP up to the present underlines that ultra-Cannonism is their organisational model and their practice. The DSP is pretty well homogeneous and organised from the top down, and the way they sketch out how their tendency will operate in the alliance has to be considered in this Cannonist spirit. Is this leopard really about to change its spots, and with such speed?

It is revealing to look at the sequence of events surrounding this proposal. It was announced by Dick Nichols to other convenors of the Socialist Alliance about 10 days ago. Dick said it hadn’t even been discussed by the DSP national executive, and that it was an initiative of the political committee (the DSP has three levels of national leadership: the national committee, a smaller national executive and the day-to-day decision-making body, the political committee). Dick said he was confident other DSP bodies would endorse the proposal, and no doubt it will be endorsed almost unanimously. Everything in the DSP comes from the top down, based on the caricature the DSP leaders have in their heads about how Lenin and the Bolsheviks used to operate. The DSP hasn’t changed in that respect.

In discussion with John Percy about this proposal, I asked if discussion would be opened up on all tactical questions within the labour movement. He replied that the discussion would have to take place about how to build the Socialist Alliance outside, and in opposition to, the Labor Party (and by inference the Greens). All serious tactical discussions realistically located in the actuality of the labour movement in Australia at this time are, by John Percy’s definition, excluded from this.

The reality of the situation is that the DSP has about 350 members, the ISO has about 100, the Freedom Socialist Party, Socialist Democracy, the Workers League and Workers Liberty all have less than 10 members each, Workers Power has about 15, and the membership of the Workers Communist Party of Iraq is hard to establish but obviously very small.

Two significant non-Stalinist groups stand outside the Socialist Alliance: Socialist Alternative with about 100 members and the Socialist Party with less than 40, mostly in Melbourne.

All my informants in the Socialist Alliance indicate that the Socialist Alliance meetings, in Sydney at least, are almost entirely attended by members of the DSP. The 2000 members claimed by DSP leaders for the Socialist Alliance nationally, outside the members of groups, are almost entirely names collected in a quite impressive effort to get the alliance registered under state and federal electoral laws.

The notion that most of them represent very great potential for political activism is a DSP leadership triumph of hope over experience. Why has the DSP leadership made its proposal at this time?

First of all, it’s a manoeuvre against the ISO in the spirit of Cannon’s well-known attitude to the entry into the US Socialist Party. In Cannon’s cosmology, often quoted in the DSP’s internal educationals — particularly by John Percy — the gains of this manoeuvre were some numerical growth and the destruction of the Socialist Party, thereby removing an obstacle to the construction of the “revolutionary party”.

The DSP has over the years removed quite a number of “obstacles” by capturing control of them and then winding them up when circumstances changed or the DSP leadership’s preoccupations and interests changed. The two most striking examples of this are the NSW ALP Socialist Left that developed in 1971 and the Nuclear Disarmament Party in the 1980s. In both cases the DSP seized effective organisational control of the group but as the DSP’s tactical orientation and practical interests changed they lost interests in these structures and acquiesced in their liquidation.

The DSP leadership’s attitude toward “obstacle” organisations may have changed, but most political players would like to see practical evidence of such change, more than just assertions that they have changed.

The DSP leadership has a public and a private attitude towards the ISO, and indeed towards all the other groups in the Socialist Alliance. The public attitude is unity, but in internal discussion in the DSP, particularly concerning the ISO, there is constant detail and up-to-date commentary on the very real crisis in that organisation, expressed in a triumphalist, hostile way, as towards an opponent organisation. In the student movement and the refugee movement, where the DSP and ISO meet, these attitudes mix. There are occasional protestations of unity, combined with frequent turf wars.

The DSP is seizing the moment in relation to the ISO, and the question arises whether they may have received some sort of nod from Alex Callinicos during his recent visit to Australia as part of the British SWP leadership’s rearrangement of the chessmen on the global board of regroupment. That aspect is unclear at this time.

A second reason for this proposal at this time is a realistic assessment by the DSP leadership that the electoral aspect of the Socialist Alliance is dead in the water. John Percy’s written proposal explicitly notes the limited electoral prospects of the alliance in an indirect and discreet way.

The DSP put all the muscle into getting the necessary electoral registrations, but they aren’t dopey enough to think there will be anything but minimal electoral results. The talk about big electoral prospects for the alliance is strictly for external consumption. In the inner councils of the DSP leadership the assessment is more realistic about electoral prospects, which are obviously very small.

A third reason for moving now with such extraordinary haste is the crisis point that has been reached in the DSP’s semi-delusional perspective that there’s some kind of mass leftist trade union break from the Labor Party developing rapidly in Melbourne and to a lesser extent in Western Australia.

The most obvious expression of the left current emerging in the trade unions in Victoria is the Workers First grouping in the metalworkers union. Workers First is under considerable and unreasonable attack by the national leadership of the metalworkers union. Workers First has made a number of tactical moves in various directions to deflect the federal leadership’s attack.

One tactic that has clearly been considered and wisely rejected is forming a breakaway union. A second tactic was a strike by some union officials and a 10-day picket of the union offices. This tactic has now been terminated in favour of the Workers First elected officials and the Workers First majority of the Victorian state council asserting and defending their rights as elected officials of the union. Implicit in this is the possibility of reaching some negotiated modus vivendi with the federal leadership of the union, although at this point political war still seems to exist between the groupings and no settlement appears to have been reached.

My personal sympathies lie with Workers First in its attempt to defeat the assault by the federal leadership machine, but that is not of any great importance because I am at some distance from the scene of the conflict. It would be interesting to know what advice was given to the Workers First grouping about tactics by the industrial “experts” of the DSP, because tactics in situations like this are of considerable importance to the survival of any serious trade union formation.

The expose-Labor rhetoric of the DSP is no asset to Workers First in this situation. Craig Johnston, the charismatic figure to whom the DSP has attached much importance as literally the only prominent left-wing trade union figure in Victoria to join the Socialist Alliance, has just resigned as secretary of the Victorian branch of the metalworkers union, obviously for sensible tactical reasons. His replacement as secretary — the kind of second-in-command of Workers First — Steve Dargavel is a well-known member of the Labor Party and was briefly a Labor MP.

The other two axes of the very real militant industrial development in Melbourne to which the DSP gives a delusional break-from-Laborism slant are the CFMEU (Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union) led by Martin Kingham and the textile and clothing union led by Michele O’Neil.

There is a crisis conference of the federal Labor Party coming up in five weeks, made up of 194 delegates. The DSP has taken a completely hostile attitude to the struggle of a number of unions, on both left and right, to retain 60 per cent representation of unions in party bodies, and 40 per cent representation of branches.

Martin Kingham and Michele O’Neil are two left delegates among the 47 from Victoria who will attend this critical federal conference. The only wisdom the DSP can offer these militant delegates from Victoria is to leave the Labor Party and join the Socialist Alliance, which advice Kingham and O’Neil have so far wisely ignored.

Internally, in the DSP, the leadership refers to Michele O’Neil as a very cynical Labor Party member, but in public they quite rightly praise her as a courageous militant unionist. She is clearly not as cynical about the ALP as the DSP leadership say in private. Her union and the CFMEU along with a number of other left unions took a strong stand in favour of 60:40 at a recent meeting of the Victorian ALP Socialist Left union caucus despite the obvious log-rolling and pressure they have been subjected to in these matters. The parliamentary leadership of the Labor left is pushing hard in support of federal parliamentary Labor leader Simon Crean’s 50:50 proposals and the attitude of the Victorian left unions may well be critical to the outcome. It will be a very interesting Labor Party federal conference.

The relevance of these developments in Victoria is that they expose the unreality of the DSP leadership’s rhetoric about the militancy in Victoria representing a fundamental and final break from the Labor Party. For most militants involved in this leftward-moving current, insofar as they consider political alliances, there’s a very strong pull on them to intervene in the Labor Party to defend their basic trade union interests, and the DSP’s sectarian destroy-the-ALP perspective cuts right across those necessities.

In even a month from now, it will be increasingly difficult for the DSP to continue with its delusional break-from-Laborism rhetoric, and from the point of view of the DSP leaders it is obviously better to move now, rather than later, when their over-riding expose-Laborism perspective will be in even worse shape.

When the Socialist Alliance was formed 18 months ago I started a literary war with the DSP in an attempt to provoke discussion on strategy and perspectives in the workers movement. Despite my well-known energy in distributing material, I struck a stony wall of hostility and professed lack of interest from the DSP leadership on these questions.

I proposed an alliance, with two strands: one being with groups outside the Labor Party and the Greens, and the second strand involving people in the ALP and the Greens, and a public discussion focussed on strategic questions in the workers movement.

I wish the DSP, ISO and the smaller groups well in the alliance project as they attempt to sort out their mutual relations, but I have a strong feeling that this discussion may well become a little stormy, as the DSP leadership elaborates in more detail the kind of organisational and political arrangements they envision for the new formation.

I propose to the DSP, ISO and the smaller groups that as an extension of their internal discussion they also hold discussions on broader labour movement perspectives, union affiliation to the Labor Party, the united front tactic, the 60:40 rule and other matters that the DSP leadership has so far avoided discussing in a serious way.

That sort of discussion is dictated by life itself — the useful phrase that the old Stalinists used to misuse. It is quite obvious, for example, that such a discussion would be of burning interest to the leftward-moving trade union militants in Victoria, to whom the DSP leadership so frequently points with little comprehension or understanding of the variety of situations, complexities and circumstances in which these trade unionists inevitably have to operate.

Self-delusion of a very high order

September 11, 2002

John Percy in today’s Green Left Weekly says “in just a year and a half the Socialist Alliance has managed to establish itself as the ‘face of socialist unity’ in Australian politics”. It’s not clear who he’s quoting. Maybe himself?

He goes on to say “the Socialist Alliance has to one degree or another drawn around itself a large part of those who view themselves as socialists and left-wingers in Australia”. This second statement is self-delusion of a very high order.

Australia is a highly urbanised country with 19.5 million people. There are nearly three million people in trade unions. There are about 2000 people who are either full-time union officials or work full-time for unions. There are somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 trade union job delegates or lay committee members.

There are probably between 5000 and 10,000 leftist students spread over nearly 100 campuses. There are about 400 Labor politicians, state and federal, who on average would have four or five staffers, making about 2500 people occupationally located in the political wing of the Labor Party. There are between 30,000 and 40,000 members of the Labor Party across Australia.

There are more than 5000 members of the Green Party across Australia. There are 15 Greens politicians, and these Greens politicians would have on average five staffers each, making about 100 full-timers in the Greens political apparatus.

If you add together the ALP members, ALP politicians and staff, active trade unionists, left-wing students and the 5000 people in the Greens structure, you get a total of 70,000 or 80,000 people.

At least 20,000 of them, and probably more, would have to be reasonably classified as identifying themselves as socialists and left-wingers. If the 2000 Socialist Alliance adherents that John claims were a large part of the socialist left in Australia we’d be in a sad state indeed. But happily the real world of the Australian workers movement is different to John Percy’s self-serving version of it.

In his address to the ISO’s Marxism conference, Dick Nichols says: “Firstly, let’s construct a real, serious debate on the entire left, and not just among Socialist Alliance affiliate organisations and members. Green Left Weekly will open its pages to this debate. We will propose to carry it on the Socialist Alliance website. We would also hope that Socialist Alternative, the Socialist Party and the CPA engage in the debate.”

By definition, Nichols excludes from the debate the 20,000 or 30,000 socialists, left-wingers and trade union activists on the left in the orbit of Laborism, and the 5000 or so active in the orbit of the Greens. He should consider this fact: nationally about 4000 people attended the ALP members’ meetings reviewing the defeat in the last federal elections. Between 30 and 50 people spoke at each of these 40 or so meetings and the overwhelming sentiment of these speakers was leftist or critical, and most of them got applause at these meetings across Australia.

The Percy-Nichols conception of what constitutes the socialist left in Australia is absurdly narrow and self-serving.

What is really required is a discussion involving both the smallish proportion of the left in the Marxist groups and the much bigger proportion who are in the orbit of Labor and the Greens. GLW would be a very useful arena for such a discussion if it would conduct such a discussion, but so far it has resolutely avoided including in this discussion the much bigger number of socialists and left-wingers in the Labor and Green orbits.

The DSP leadership should try to develop some sense of proportion in these matters, rather than trying to create a verbal version of reality in which they are at the centre.

I am passionately in favour of a left unity that involves the maximum number of people on the socialist left. I’m also passionately in favour of sensible, civilised public discussion of many of the unresolved political and strategic positions on the left.

The problem with the approach of the DSP leadership to the obvious need for unity is that it presents a constant ultimatum to socialists and left-wingers in the orbit of Labor and the Greens that they should renounce their organisational allegiance and involvement in the structures to which many of them have devoted large parts of their lives, and join the structures of the Socialist Alliance.

These ultimatums are absurd and counter-productive. Alan Bradley in his 100 per cent party-loyal ex-member’s role, as a kind of yapping sheepdog for the DSP leadership, betrays in the discussion on Marxmail a certain underlying Stalinism by classifying me as a “paleo-Trot” (a rather fascinating mental image) at the same time as he creates the other entertaining mental image of the use of sticks of dynamite to remove me from the ALP.

In his clownish way, comrade Bradley has stumbled upon one of the facts of political life in the Labor Party in Australia. Along with the people who are disillusioned with Labor and one or another right-wing policy or betrayal, there are many thousands in the trade union movement and the Labor Party who are vigorously opposed to the policy of the conservative leaders of the workers’ organisations, but who are tied to these organisations by all kinds of practical considerations and lifelong associations.

It will take a bit more than Alan Bradley’s odd stick of gelignite to seriously interfere with these sociological realities, as Trotsky and Lenin used to point out very sharply to people like Bradley and the DSP leaders in the 1920 and the 1930s.

A serious socialist unity project, and public discussion in current Australian conditions, must be framed in such a way as to involve both the minority who’ve broken from the orbit of Labor and the Greens, and the majority of Labor and Green members who are still in those orbits. That brings us to the question of Cannonism.

Jose Perez on Marxmail reasonably says that the proposal of the DSP leaders deserves to be taken at face value. The problem is, viewed from Australia, that many people are not prepared, on the basis of their experience with the DSP, to take such a charitable view initially.

For instance, yesterday the ISO national executive, incorporating the three recognisable groupings in the ISO, unanimously rejected the DSP proposal for the time being, and it seems to me that the ISO’s rejection is likely to be based on the ISO’s experiences, even in very recent times, with the DSP.

The ISO and the DSP are both present, for instance, in the left wing of the student movement. The ISO in the student movement operates on a vague notion of a united front strategy that includes the left-wing Laborites in the National Organisation of Labor Students, who are the dominant force in the Australian Union of Students. The DSP, on the other hand, takes as its central focus in the student movement, constant exposure of and attack on the forces in NOLS as “treacherous adherents of the rotten Labor Party — one of the two capitalist parties that dominate Australian society”.

The DSP internally is cocky and triumphalist in its pursuit of this exposure strategy towards the Labor students. They constantly attack the ISO and the Broad Left for making any blocs or accommodations with the Labor students.

The comrade who is currently the DSP’s national student organiser outlines all this in enormous detail in her recent report to the national committee of the DSP.

One revealing incident that she describes rather smugly is how at a recent student conference the DSP joined with Socialist Alternative to create chaos and raise hell and thereby disrupt the attempt of the ISO to reach some accommodation with the Laborites.

In this context, it’s easy to understand why the ISO students of all factions seem reluctant to join a common Socialist Alliance student caucus with the DSP, despite the bland proclamation from Dick Nichols that the decisions of such caucuses need not be binding.

The problem with the DSP bearing gifts, is that people active in the same spheres as the DSP often don’t believe them, on the basis of relatively recent experiences.

This get us to the question of Cannonism and Leninism. Personally, despite current fashions, I regard Lenin, properly understood, as by far the greatest revolutionary politician of any epoch. For me, Lenin is the great master.

The so-called Leninism, invented after his death is quite a different proposition, and a poisonous one. The same applies to James P. Cannon, who awaits a major, serious biographer, like Peter Drucker for Max Schactman. From my perspective, anyone who doesn’t know Cannon’s work and thinks they’re a Marxist is a bit dopey. I introduced Jim and John Percy to the works of Cannon, and I’d do it again.

Cannon was a good deal more than just the Cannonism that he partly invented, and that was taken to an absurd degree by the US SWP in the period of its degeneration, which happened to be the period when the Percys latched on to Cannonism as a steadily narrowing and rigidifying organisational formula. As the poet might have said: “who knows Cannon or Lenin who only Cannon or Lenin knows”.

Cannon was a wonderful proletarian agitator, and one should read his pamphlet on Debbs and his nostalgia for the Debbsian all-in socialist party and his pamphlet on the IWW as part of any balance-sheet on Cannon. One should also study his enormous understanding of, and animosity to, Stalinism in The First 10 Year of American Communism.

The real Cannon is a good deal broader and more complex than the “Cannonism” and “Leninism” of the DSP. When the DSP deliberately ditched what it called Trotskyism in 1984 it rejected, in part, the Trotskyist hostility to the politics of Stalinism, and the Trotskyist preoccupation with such things as the sociology of real workers movements, but it maintained, deepened and extended its crudified Cannonist conception of the party as a thing in itself, to some extent outside and in opposition to the workers movement, and it has operated on that organisational basis ever since.

The problem with this new DSP unity initiative is that few people outside their own ranks can see any real evidence that their small machine has changed in these major organisational aspects.

These problems are exacerbated by the exotic political culture of the DSP. Having said that, no halfway educated Marxist can afford to ignore Cannon or Lenin. The problem with the DSP is that, from the history of the workers movement, pretty well all that the rather homogeneous membership of the DSP gets as party education is an intense diet of Cannon and Lenin.

The rich, complex, and contradictory history of the Australian workers’ movement is substantially ignored, which gives the DSP’s collective view of the world an eccentrically exotic character.

If Peter Boyle, who presents such a genial and smiling face to the world most of the time, thinks I’m being too tough on the DSP, he should consider this fact: six or eight months ago, when the cautious internal opposition inside the DSP raised its first criticisms, he rounded on them rather vigorously — with bell, book and candle, so to speak — holding up before their eyes the awful consequences that would flow, by implication, for them, if they persisted in their questioning of the DSP’s political culture.

Marxist politics is a complex business, and this debate about socialist unity has only just begun. I address myself on these questions to the members of the DSP, the ISO and the other Marxist groups, because, despite the fact that they aren’t the overwhelming majority of the socialist left that John Percy eccentrically claims, nevertheless they are among the more important and serious elements on the socialist left, and it’s hard to envision the emergence of a major Marxist force in Australian labour movement politics that does not include many of the people who are presently members of these Marxist groups.


1. Nigel Irritable on Marxmail, September 4, 2002. Having read the DSP announcement that it intends to dissolve itself into the Australian Socialist Alliance I am left feeling more than a little sceptical. There is certainly a possibility that the DSP honestly wants to liquidate its revolutionary organisation into a reformist one, but given its long history of sectarian manouvering another option presents itself. The Australian Socialist Alliance consists of the DSP, the ISO, a handful of tiny organisations and a small number of active independents. The other reasonable-sized organisations on the Australian left — the Progressive Labour Party, the Communist Party, the Socialist Party and Socialist Alternative — have refused to get involved, seeing it as little more than a pact between the ISO and the DSP.

The DSP has not entered into discussion with its “allies” about widening and deepening co-operation. Instead … it has made a unilateral decision that it is going to entirely submerge itself in the alliance. It has made this announcement while the only other group of any size in the alliance, the ISO, is in disarray. Over the last few years, operating on the basis of a wildly optimistic assessment of the political situation handed down to it by the British SWP, the ISO has thrown itself into all kinds of broader movements well beyond its capacity to maintain, while avoiding difficult arguments about politics. The expected gains did not occur and in fact the organisation started to decline. Now the organisation is split in a number of different directions, some relatively “movementist”, some “sectarian”.

The DSP, in the absence of large numbers of independents and with a declining ISO, has been effectively running the Socialist Alliance. By pushing themselves even further into the alliance, while presenting the move as a step towards non-sectarian “regroupment”, they can hope to take complete control of the alliance, hoover up many of the small number of independents who actually do take part and further exacerbate the tensions in the ISO. The ISO is then left with the option of ceding the Socialist Alliance to the DSP or responding similarly and trying to fight a losing battle against a larger and less demoralised organisation within the alliance.

Now as I said at the beginning, it is is not impossible that the DSP are entirely sincere in their liquidationism. Stranger things have happened and without being on the ground, I can't tell. On the other hand if this move really is about closer co-operation on the left, why is the process starting with a DSP announcement rather than a discussion amongst the “allies”?