Bob Gould, 2003

Workers online and Green Left Weekly
Approaches to socialist journalism

Source: Green Left Weekly online discussion, May 5, 2003
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

On the Green Left discussion site, Peter Perkins writes:

This article below appeared in the latest Workers Online — It really goes to show how far some people on the left have gone down the Neo Liberal road.

It’s an ideology we should reject as socialists as it reduces all struggle to a matter of morality, rather than the emancipation of the classes. It removes the primary reason for struggle at all.

“Morality” doesn’t exist as a concrete entity, having a differing value from person to person.

This drivel from the same Labor Left that Bob Gould is relying on to emancipate the working classes.

And earlier, on April 10 (message 950), he said:

Who’s the sectarian here?

Bob, deal with realities rather than eulogise your own ALP bias. This drivel doesn’t even make a rational argument, that would be constructive for the left.

Peter Perkins seems to like words like “drivel”, and in a way his polemical style is part of his political line. It’s worth examining the context here.

His attack on Workers Online and Neil Towart underlines a sharp difference between us on how to approach the broader labour movement. Perkins is a bit politically cute about the article to which he refers. Eric Aarons has never been a member of the Labor Party, either left or right. He was a member of the Communist Party until it went out of business, a party with which Perkins himself once had some association, or am I mistaken?

Eric Aarons has been expressing this kind of liberal reformist view for a very long time, and indeed that kind of political outlook was dominant in the CPA during its last few years, when Aarons was still a major leader, and when the DSP was desperate to amalgamate with the CP (in the so-called New Left Party process) and when Perkins was associated with that group.

As it happens, I’m at the moment working on a careful critique of Aarons’s views because I believe that this is an important part of settling accounts with the Stalinist tradition in the Australian labour movement.

Nevertheless, I find Perkins’ tone insufferably superior. Even in a critique of Eric Aarons a careful, reasoned approach would be more useful than expletives about moralism. I’d recommend that Perkins re-read Their Morals and Ours, by Trotsky, who is necessarily quite sharp with opponents, but he nowhere accuses them of writing “drivel”. What Trotsky does, however, is what Perkins doesn’t do, he examines the arguments of his opponents in detail and refutes them issue by issue, which is a good approach to adopt in polemics.

In addition to Peter Perkins’ aggrieved, contemptuous tone, which is actually part of his political line, he’s not too careful about actually making clear who is the valid object of his attack. I’d point out to him that Neil Towart (who I know), the author of the offending review, is not a member of the Labor Party (either faction) and makes a careful point of being an independent leftist. He’s actually the archivist and librarian of the Labor Council, and a very conscientious one.

I disagree with Towart’s views on this particular matter, and intend to take them up in due course, but to describe them as drivel because they come from a source associated with the Labor Council is the height of ignorant sectarianism.

In fact, insofar as the left anti-neoliberal views of Aarons have significant influence, in my experience that influence is mainly in the broad movement around the Greens, rather than in the Labor Party, so Perkins has directed this particular broadside almost entirely to the wrong address.

Perkins obviously regards everything associated with the NSW Labor Council and the official trade union movement in NSW, right or left, as beyond the pale, and he shares that general orientation with the DSP. That’s his and their problem, not mine.

Perkins is highly selective in his example from Workers Online. The thing that struck me about the May Day digest, from which he selects one article to post with a bit of abuse, is its broad and generally leftist character.

I admit to a bias here, because the editor saw fit to publish as a letter the whole of my polemical piece attacking Bush’s Iraq war and polemicising with Barry York, Albert Langer and Gerard Henderson.

The gritted-teeth venom directed by the DSP from time to time against Workers Online is tactically unbalanced in the extreme. When you consider that it’s the official organ of the trade union movement in NSW and has the highest hit rate of any trade union website in the English-speaking world, anyone but a blind sectarian ought to value its generally leftist character and nurture the opportunity to get a voice there, which is possible due to the reasonably liberal editorial policy of the Labor Council.

Which brings us to the point of how, as a socialist or leftist consumer, one looks at a newspaper or a website. The mix of material in Workers Online seems to me to be far more rational and balanced, from a proletarian socialist point of view than, for instance, the usual content of Green Left Weekly.

When I came into labour movement and left-wing politics back in the 1950s, when technical production of left-wing newspapers was far more difficult than it is now, everybody active in the movement used to read the old stodgy black and white Stalinist Tribune, not for its editorial line, but because it carried very detailed coverage of industrial and matters, including matters and disputes well outside and beyond the direct political influence of the CPA, which produced Tribune. Quite a few leftist opponents of the Groupers used to read the Grouper weekly paper, News Weekly, as well, for the same reason.

News Weekly had a very detailed account of the day-to-day chop-chop in the unions, covered from the Grouper point of view.

Tribune also used to have commentary of a critical united-frontist sort on developments in the broader labour movement. That editorial approach helped ensure it a large audience, despite the high-Stalinist idiosyncrasies of the paper, inevitable because of the political allegiance of the editors and journalists.

Unfortunately, GLW, which due to modern technology, colour printing, etc, is infinitely more accomplished than the old black-and-white Tribune, is considerably narrower, politically speaking, in its general approach to industrial and political coverage of the Australian labour movement.

GLW covers international matters at great length and often in considerable detail, but in this sphere it’s competing with the internet and left liberal sources of information and opinion such as the Guardian Weekly. My impression is that few people, even among those who get GLW, read much of the international stuff because they’ve already read similar material elsewhere.

GLW‘s coverage of industrial matters is usually narrowly focussed on a couple of situations where the DSP has a direct interest or involvement. The rest of the world of labour doesn’t get much of a look in at all in GLW.

The other thing that doesn’t get much coverage any more in GLW is Australian labour movement history. The political reason for this is obvious: all past labour movement history, is, in the current view of the DSP, a history of “betrayal” because the participants didn’t have the advantage of a DSP to lead them, etc, etc.

By way of contrast, if you take the May Day issue of Workers Online as a working example, it’s a pretty good workers’ newspaper in a number of respects.

Obviously, the editorial line of the paper is the left reformism of the official labour movement and the Labor Council leadership. Nevertheless, the coverage of current industrial matters, issues in the workers’ movement, labour history and other questions is diverse and interesting.

There’s more actual workers’ movement information in any issue of Workers Online than there is in about half a dozen issues of GLW. A sane Marxist obviously ought to argue sharply with the editorial of Workers Online on many questions, but in my experience the smart thing is to do that concretely and without gratuitous abuse, taking into account that Workers Online represents something pretty tangible and important in the real world of the labour and workers movement. The arena for sensible struggle presented, for example, by its letters page, should be taken up by Marxists in a realistic way.

The attitude adopted by Peter Perkins and by GLW towards Workers Online is of a piece with their generally sectarian approach to the broader labour movement. I’d recommend a steady diet of Workers Online to most members of the far left, and to that end I’ve posted the digest of this May Day issue of Workers Online on the GLW site and on Marxmail for perusal and examination.

Finally, I don’t intend this critique as a personal attack on the comrades who produce GLW with considerable dedication on a lowish party allowance. I’m amazed, actually, at the amount of material they manage to produce. The narrowness of the DSP’s conception of the paper is a political, not personal, question.

I have some idea of how a paper like GLW is produced. The editorial board meets from time to time, a political line and approach is laid down, and a division of labour among the editorial staff is defined from time to time.

I have particular sympathy for the dedicated comrade who is given the job of surfing the world left press for the international component. That must be the deadliest of jobs, and it has been done at different times by Norm Dickson, Sean Healy and now Rohan Pearce. Sarah Steven obviously has the job of putting together accounts of movement events throughout the country and focussing coverage of them mainly around the “leading role of the DSP”. Alison Dellitt has the other unenviable job of general political comment, with the inevitable, scolding-scoundrels exposure rhetoric belted out week after week at the Laborites. Most of the limited industrial coverage is obviously faxed or emailed up from Melbourne, written by Sue Bull, and focuses almost entirely on industrial events involving the couple of Victorian unions that are the DSP’s almost entire industrial focus. Labor history doesn’t get a guernsey anywhere.

Another area that rarely gets coverage these days is any popular exposition of Marxist theory, or serious argument about issues in Marxist theory. It seems to me the absence of argument and debate on theoretical questions in the paper is of a piece with keeping such arguments almost entirely internal. By way of contrast, the first 150 or so issues of Direct Action, which I have in bound form, were (despite the fact that they were technically more primitive than GLW now) infinitely more wide-ranging in all the areas that I’ve just raised.

The editor, presumably presides over the whole show within the narrow sectarian framework defined by the current DSP political line.

The sad thing, from my point of view, is that all the comrades involved in producing the paper are dedicated, hardworking and intelligent people, and if the DSP had a broader, more workers movement oriented, less moralising political line, that same group of people could produce quite an extraordinary paper with the modern techniques available these days.