Bob Gould, 2003

The real lessons of the Vietnam antiwar movement in Australia
Zinovievism and writing history

Source: Ozleft, October 27, 2003
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

I would like to thank the editorial board of Green Left Weekly, and the Democratic Socialist Party, for running my piece on the Johnson demonstration, for the careful way it was edited and the sensible juxtaposition of it with a smaller article and some pictures, and with the two-page centrespread by Doug Lorimer a week later presenting the DSP leadership’s version of the first part of the history of the Vietnam antiwar movement.

Lorimer’s narative — an updated version of the account of John Percy and himself of the antiwar movement and, to some extent the origins of the DSP — has some substantial defects of omission.

The DSP leadership’s present, evolved, conception of the DSP and its predecessors is Lorimer’s starting point. This ahistorical perspective, which gives too much weight to the DSP and Resistance tendency as a self-conscious entity, is extrapolated back in time, in this case to 1965, as if the development of Resistance and the DSP in their present form was a globally significant political development totally contained, in embryo, in the initial struggles of Jim and John Percy.

John Percy has been presenting this DSP-centric version of the events for years in his potted lectures on the history of the DSP. Some of the questions raised by the Lorimer-Percy slant on these historical questions are also relevant to Lorimer’s new substantial article about Zinovievism, polemicising with Louis Proyect.

The article by Lorimer in the current issue of Links is useful and timely because it codifies the DSP leadership’s view and it has to be taken in conjunction with Lorimer’s account of events in the antiwar movement. I’m working on a longer piece about these organisational questions.

Doug Lorimer’s account of the history of the antiwar movement is relevant to this broader discussion.

I observe here, as I’ll observe at greater length in a forthcoming article, that the Percy-Lorimer school of historiography owes almost everything to the Zinoviev-Cannon school of history, the high points of which were Zinoviev’s History of the Bolshevik Party and Jim Cannon’s History of American Trotskyism, both of which started out as series of lectures, like John Percy’s.

The great weakness of this school is that Zinoviev trawls back into the history of the movement in an attempt to codify a schema about the origins of the Bolshevik Party, Cannon does the same regarding the US SWP, and now Percy-Lorimer do the same with the origins of the DSP.

According to this method, the evolved form of the organisations, at the point of writing, represents a deliberate outcome that had been taking place self-consciously since the foundation of the group.

This approach in the first two cases was a mystification, and it’s even more a mystification in the case of the DSP.

Doug Lorimer also extends this kind of mystification into his history of the antiwar movement. For a start, the Vietnam Action Committee, when it was founded in 1965, included, as leading personalities myself, the late Mary Greenland (Hall Greenland’s mother), Rod Webb and John Percy, not just myself and John. At that point, John’s main sphere of activity actually was the Sydney University Labor Club where he was active, along with Hayden Thompson, Col Waddy, Russ Darnley, and members of the Communist Party such as Anne and Jean Curthoys and others.

The early period was more complex and contradictory than the DSP narrative suggests. It is true that we were powerfully influenced by Intercontinental Press and the US SWP, and that we fought hard for the “Withdrawal of all Imperialist Troops” to be the central focus of our agitation.

However, in Australia, we had a more mixed attitude to civil disobedience and even to slogans like “Victory to the Viet Cong”. We weren’t as absolutely flatfooted as the US SWP, which opposed all civil disobedience and “Victory to the Vie tCong”.

While our emphasis was mainly on mass action for withdrawal, we occasionally initiated a bit of creative civil disobedience to get publicity, such as the sitdown in Canberra in May 1965, the sitdown demonstration in Pitt Street in October 1965, and the blocking of Johnson’s cavalcade in October 1966. In analagous circumstances, the US SWP totally opposed all civil disobedience, in my understanding.

Later on, when draft resistance, which was a kind of civil disobedience, commenced, we gave it critical support. However, we also tried to raise the notion of resistance inside the army. When other forces in the movement raised the “Victory to the Viet Cong” slogan, we fought hard to continue the main emphasis of the Vietnam Action Committee on the withdrawal of Australian and American troops, but we didn’t object to other groups carrying “Victory to the Viet Cong” placards in our demonstrations.

We were heavily influenced by the very practical initiatives of the US SWP in the US antiwar movement, but we weren’t in any sense simply clones of the US SWP, as some people, particularly the Stalinists, accused us of being.

In his account, Lorimer makes an overly quick leap from the early phase of the Vietnam Action Committee to the struggle in the mobilisation committees for a withdrawal policy in the Moratoriums. He tends to focus his account entirely on the role of the Percy Resistance groups in this development, which is self-serving historical nonsense.

If readers go to the 1970 open letter to Moratorium sponsors, they will find that document, which initiated the successful struggle to give the youth and the left equal say in the running of the Moratorium, was a bloc of all the youth and far-left organisations that were around at the time. In particular, the bloc was spearheaded by the two wings into which the old VAC and Resistance had split.

The main personalities in both groups are there with signatures on the open letter, along with a range of others. In the practical day-to-day running of both Moratoriums in Sydney, this bloc of the left forced not only Jim Percy, but also a number of other of the signatories to the open letter, on to the Steering Committee of the Moratoriums at various stages.

At the staff level, in the Moratorium office, representatives of the militant bloc included Ros Cheney, Rod Webb’s then companion, who was for a while in the DSP but later left it, a woman from Workers Action whose name I now forget, and other militants. If you look study the list of signatories to the open letter, all of whom were significant leaders in the antiwar movement, three of them were members of the Percy faction (one of whom, Tony Dewberry, is now a member of Socialist Democracy in Melbourne), five of them were broadly members of Phil Sandford’s Workers Action group, and seven of them were people who sided with Gould at the time of the split in Resistance.

At that stage in developments, the Percy group was a smaller influence than the other groups in the general revolt of the left of the movement against total Stalinist dominance.

In the same time frame, the 1971 Socialist Left in the ALP was mainly an insurrection of all kinds of indigenous ALP rebels. All the non-Stalinist socialist groups, including Phil Sandford’s group and the two wings into which Resistance had split, also joined it. Despite the split in Resistance, all the socialist groups, including my opponents, the Percys, voted for me to be Labor Party federal conference delegate against Frank Walker MLA, at the vital Socialist Left preselection meeting for the 1971 conference. I beat Walker by 90 votes to 10 at this preselection meeting. Obviously the split in Resistance hadn’t become as fixed as it did later.

All this was possible because, at that stage, the hardened split between the then embryonic DSP and the group around me, (most of whom went on to have a fit of party building enthusiasm ourselves, when most of us at different times moved into the orbit of the also recently founded SLL) had not become completely frozen.

It was only after the 1971 Labor Party state conference, and the federal conference to which I was elected by half a vote, that the differences between the groups hardened rapidly.

After the high point of the two conferences, some of the technocratic indigenous Laborites quickly lost interest in the Socialist Left, and the DSP forces decided to take it over, and by marshalling Resistance youth, a number of whom weren’t even at that stage members of the Labor Party, they managed to get the numbers at a Socialist Left conference against a coalition of George Petersen, myself, some indigenous ALP activists and Workers’ Action. The issues in dispute were a bit arcane and focused on two alternative formulations of a program for the Socialist Left, but the substantial outcome was the Percy group’s successful capture of the executive committee of the Socialist Left.

The Percy group’s capture of this committee was overshadowed by another development, as the main personalities leading the Percy group’s activities in the Labor Party were Roger Barnes and his supporters.

As the first celebrated, significant incident of the Cannonisation of the Percy group, the Barnes group was deliberately driven out (by organisational means) of the developing Percy organisation, with the aim of homogenising the Percy group. Immediately after this, the Percy group ditched Labor Party work for a year or two, although they went back into the Labor Party at a later stage. Having captured the 1971 Socialist Left, they promptly liquidated it. This is all described in some detail in the section of George Petersen’s autobiography on the question.

These circumstances get us to the problem of the Percy-Lorimer party model, extended onwards through the last 30 years of the 20th century. All the Leninist party building exercises of the late 1960s and the 1970s and the 1980s, into the 1990s, including the DSP and the SLL, took over a Zinovievest “party building” formula.

The main features of this formula are a hermetically sealed internal life, with an-all powerful “leadership”, however ill-qualified, that resolves all political questions at the top level and preserves a kind of cabinet solidarity against the membership of the organisation.

In general, differences within the leadership are resolved before they are taken to the membership, and members of the leadership are expected not to campaign among the members for their point of view, outside of strictly limited pre-conference periods, with an obligation to form a faction and start a war if serious differences arise. This leads either to the strangulation of political developments or to unnecessary splits.

When you get a situation, as you have now in almost every advanced capitalist country, of a proliferation of socialist organisations with this kind of internal regime, each organisation has particular shibboleths and obsessions, which have been produced by their specific political evolution, mainly inside the leadership. In the external world, you then arrive at the situation we have now.

A number of revolutionary socialist groups face each other, in the spirit of the analogy that I use about ant and bee colonies, all with some variant of the frozen-in-time Zinovievist party model. Even in an organisation like the Socialist Alliance, which is ostensibly a vehicle for socialist unity and regroupment, the problem of the Zinovievist model of organisation clearly persists.

The main organisations, particularly the DSP, operate within this Zinovievest framework, even in the Alliance, which clearly gives the DSP leadership enormous practical weight, both in relation to any opposition forces in the DSP, and particuarly in relation to the smaller groups in the Alliance. Any serious tactical or political discussion takes place first in the DSP leadership.

It is then transmitted downward into the DSP, and the DSP leadership, which runs the largest group, has no difficulty getting the Alliance to do whatever the DSP leadership requires. Despite the presence of a number of organisations in the Alliance, very little frank horizontal political debate takes place between the members of the various socialist groups, because they all have a similar, Zinovievest, structure, which acts as a bulwark against serious discussion. That is an enormous political problem.

One feature of Doug Lorimer’s narrative of the Vietnam antiwar movement that underlines its mechanical, retrospective, Zinovievest character is his use of the royal plural for the DSP and Resistance, extrapolated back to 1965. The royal plural is used by him to create an ideal model of an organisation and current, seven or eight years before he appeared on the scene.

It gives the notion more magisterium, but it’s politically very misleading. The present political organisations of the far left evolved over time, and their present finished form bears little resemblance to how they started out.

How they started out had some negative features, as John Percy will tell you at length, but in my view it also had some positive features which, in due course I will describe at length. It’s not much use, however, to tell the story the way Lorimer does, tidying up the history to suit his present point of view. This approach to historical questions is common to most groups that think they are Leninist, and it tends to miseducate members badly.

Airbrushing out of history all the contradictory and complex individuals and developments that don’t fit your view and replacing them with an idealised narrative is a bad way to proceed, both historically and politically. Lorimer’s little bit of airbrushing, of course, is tiny compared with the massive falsifications of history we’ve seen in the 20th century, particularly the Stalinist falsification of history, which was on a gigantic scale backed up by an enormous state apparatus. Nevertheless, Doug’s little bit of airbrushing contains within it a possible embryo of the monstrous greater historical falsifications with which we are all familiar.

When writing history, Marxists ought always keep these issues in the forefront of their minds and give coverage and weight to all the elements and individuals in the historical situations they are discussing. That is a much better way of writing history from a Marxist point of view than some one-eyed narrative, usually written to serve a narrow political purpose. Such narratives can usually be refuted with a certain amount of effort, so why bother writing one-eyed narratives in the first place!

Doug Lorimer’s second piece in today’s Green Left reduces the whole of the political struggle in the movement against the Vietnam War to a struggle against Stalinism and Laborism, personalised as a struggle against those forces by his retrospectively idealised political tendency. Politically this is very dangerous nonsense. The struggle against the Vietnam War proceeded in the broad labour movement, and within the Labor Party, and for most of the period the bulk of the labour movement, and many of its leaders, particularly the courageous Arthur Calwell, led that struggle.

That was also how all of us in Sydney, in the Trotskyist tradition, including the Percy’s, viewed it at the time, and formed the framework for our participation in the process. In the case of the Percys, it formed the basis of their participation in it right to the end of the struggle against the Vietnam War in 1975.

It wasn’t until their dramatic change in political orientation in about 1985 that their view of those questions changed. I own a set of the first 76 issues of Direct Action, and the totally different orientation of the DSP current towards Laborism is clear in them.

Rewriting your own history in the dramatic way that Doug Lorimer does on the Labor Party question is right at the heart of the problem of Zinovievism.