Bob Gould, 2003

Triumphalism is not in order
Socialists and the aftermath of the protests against George Bush

Source: Ozleft, November 6, 2003
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

In my careful overview of the events in Canberra recently, A long march in Australia’s occult capital, I included the light-hearted but reasonably accurate observation:

“There was a certain amount of rebellious competition between the different socialist groups, with their red flags and their generals and colonels directing operations.”

This triggered an extremely heated response from DSP leader Peter Boyle, who in part accused me of slandering the DSP by the observation (which doesn’t appear a reasonable take on it at all unless your mental universe is one in which all observations must focus on you because you are the centre of the world).

Boyle mainly goes to town about the Melbourne-based Socialist Party’s interpretation of its intervention at the Bush demonstration on its website, and he accuses the Socialist Party and to a lesser extent Socialist Alternative, of sectarianism.

From that a typical DSP leadership smoke and mirrors debate proceeded on the Green Left discussion website all that week, on the terrain chosen by Boyle of the rather Potemkin Village Socialist Party’s highlighting of its actually rather modest participation in the Bush demonstration.

There is a certain amount of substance in Boyle’s accusation of sectarianism against the Socialist Party, but it is very much a case of an extremely sooty pot calling a much smaller kettle black.

The issue of the Green Left Weekly that reported the anti-Bush demonstrations is a vintage example of the DSP leadership’s diehard sectarianism towards the mass labour movement in Australia. There are no less than seven articles in this issue purportedly drawing the lessons of the anti-Bush demonstration and denouncing Laborism, Laborites and all their works.

There’s an editorial, the main theme of which is Laborite betrayal. There’s a main article on the demonstrations by Pip Hinman, again the main lesson is Laborite betrayal. There’s the second part of Lorimer’s discussion of the Vietnam period, main lesson: Laborite betrayal. There’s a lengthy article by Jim McIlroy about the death of Jim Cairns, again with the theme of Labor betrayal. And several of the accounts of demonstrations against Bush in other cities draw the lesson that Laborite betray.

The most spicy and dangerous article of the lot is a smaller piece about a righteous battle of some trade union militants in Brisbane against the Doug Cameron machine in the metalworkers’ union. This opposition ticket in the metalworkers is a very serious challenge to the Cameron machine by a group of militants that includes a member of the ex-ISO group of recent times, and some other militants, including some ALP activists in the union. The Green Left coverage of the battle reduces it to a contest between the Socialist Alliance and what Green Left describes as the “Cameron ALP machine”.

A strategy imposed by Green Left is something the Brisbane militants need like a hole in the head. Needless to say, it suits the Cameronites down to the ground, and they’ve produced red-baiting leaflets taking up the Green Left journalistic posture to try to discredit the whole metalworkers opposition in Brisbane.

The DSP leadership appears to have learnt nothing about the practical questions of the united front in the labour movement and the trade unions from the long history of the old CPA and the old Trotskyists in Australia. All they can repeat in trade union matters is a tired mantra, taken straight out of the worst Third Period excesses of the CPA.

The DSP leadership takes no notice of the more sensible practices of the old Communist Party in the unions throughout most of its history, to say nothing of the realism of the old Trotskyists in these matters. Everything, for the DSP leadership, seems to focus on their own hyped-up, exaggerated conception of their role.

The old Communist Party, in trade union affairs, when supporting militant teams, used to consistently stress that such teams were united groups including leftists and ALP militants. The formula constantly used by the old CPA was Unity Tickets, stressing the existence of a large Labor component.

The old CPA, apart from its two Third Period binges, happily both rather brief, was always extremely careful to recognise that the vast majority of unionists were supporters of the ALP and the vast majority of union activists were also in the orbit of the ALP.

It quite sensibly, in practice, recognised that the CP was a smallish minority. From this realism, combined with the competent and militant leadership given by many CPA members in unions, stemmed the CP’s real influence in union affairs.

For most of its existence the CP sensibly avoided the constant attempt of the right wing in the labour movement to position militant opposition groups as simply a “bunch of Commos”.

Rather than learning from history in a sensible way, Green Left goes out of its way to picture conflicts in unions as conflicts between its political vehicle, the Socialist Alliance, and the Labor Party. That kind of trade union strategy by socialists is a formula for disaster.

On the Green Left discussion list, the point of view and self-promotion of the DSP leadership is sometimes expressed by Peter Boyle.

The current “general line” of the DSP leadership as it develops is also often expressed first on the discussion list by Paperclayman-MT Void, who is probably one of the ostensibly independent Socialist Alliance personalities who works very closely with the DSP leadership, and tends to express their views in the Socialist Alliance.

Paperclayman’s prime lesson from the Bush demonstrations and the current political circumstances is that what is primarily needed is further energetic exposure of the Laborites and heroic activity to build the Socialist Alliance because of the extraordinary opportunities of the current period.

He implicitly argues that this building of the Socialist Alliance must focus on the Alliance’s electoral campaign in the upcoming federal election. He also develops a critique of the Greens to buttress his proposition about the necessity of voluntaristic heroic activity to build the Socialist Alliance in the coming election situation.

At the first meeting of the Sydney Stop the War Coalition after the successful Bush mobilisations, the main political lesson being drawn by the DSP leaders present and by those of the ISO, was a sort of inane triumphalism. They argued that it was the organisational and political activities of the Stop the War Coalition, rather than the circumstantial reality, that were the main reasons for the much larger size of the Sydney demonstration, as opposed to the Melbourne protest.

In reality, two or three material or objective factors favoured the militant demonstrations in Sydney and Canberra, such as the historical analogies with the 1966 Johnson demonstration, which enabled wide publicity for the Bush demonstrations through the article in the Sun-Herald, the fact that an anonymous donor paid for a Sydney Morning Herald ad, and the fact that the rival coalition created conditions for publicising the two anti-Bush demonstrations by holding a rival event on the Sunday before (which was intensively leafleted by StWC activists).

These were in fact the main material reasons for the difference of magnitude in the demonstrations, and this fortuitous combination of events also flowed on to the Canberra demonstration.

Rather than use the success of the Sydney and Canberra mobilisations as a lever to attempt to rebuild the unity of the antiwar movement, which had been disrupted by the splitting activities of the right (now organised in the rival Sydney Coalition for Peace and Justice), the DSP leadership adopted the posture: “what could you expect from the rotten Laborites”, and while they favoured unity, they were not too concerned about the continuation of the split.

Both the DSP leadership and the ISO leadership used extravagant rhetoric about how it was possible to build a large antiwar movement in Sydney on the basis of local groups. This is, in fact, a mystical conception. Two or three local groups exist, but to some extent even they are vegetating, and there is very little indication of the development of other local groups. The talk of big possibilities of local antiwar groups is largely hot air, based not on a sober assessment of the possibilities but on the wishful thinking of the socialists involved in the antiwar movement. The real lessons of the anti-Bush demonstrations are:

Socialists in Australia need to go forward to build a broadly based antiwar movement in the above spirit without sectarianism. The kind of triumphalism we have seen in the aftermath of the Bush mobilisations can only be a barrier to such an endeavour. In particular we need to use the relative success of the Sydney and Canberra mobilisations to press the more conservative forces in the labour movement to rebuild the unity of the antiwar movement across the political spectrum of the labour movement.


Ignorant demagogy about the labour movement and the history of the Communist Party and Labor Party

November 7, 2003

Peter Boyle’s first response to me is very revealing, in style, language and content. It went up only a few minutes after my post, and he didn’t even bother to correct obvious spelling mistakes.

I have a humorous mental image of Boyle spluttering and very excited as he taps his vitriol into the machine. The spelling errors, of course, are trivial. But, along with the bombastic leftist language they indicate a hasty, kneejerk response. The political-historical content indicates the frame of mind into which the DSP leadership has managed to talk itself, and to some extent talk the membership of the DSP.

This response merges two separate questions: CPA strategy and tactics as a relatively small cadre group operating on the flank of the overwhelmingly hegemonic Labor Party-trade union continuum, and policies pursued by the CPA in the broader labour movement.

I’d be the last person to idealise the broad political strategy defended by the old CP at many points. Revolutionary socialists like me were often critical of the strategy of the Stalinist CPA in the broad labour movement, and in particular for its tendency to adapt to the most conservative, lowest common denominator in the labour movement. We often accused the Stalinists, including the trade union leaders, of a kind of double-entry. I’ve described this at length in The Communist Party in Australian Life and The DSP book of parables: Jim McIlroy and the Red North.

Despite this tendency to adaptation, however, on a number of broad labour movement questions the CP from time to time was hardened up partly by pressure from the ranks, particularly the trade union ranks, and partly by the influence of traditional socialist ideology and the agitation of other revolutionary groups.

The classical example of an event like this was the situation in the workers movement from the Clarrie O’Shea industrial dispute, through to the middle of the 1970s.

Clarrie O’Shea (the Victorian Tramways Union secretary), who was a Maoist, refused to pay fines to the industrial court, or to open the union books to the court. The Communist Party and the Labor left mobilised a major wave of national strikes in his defence. The Tory government caved in, a representative of the ruling class anonymously paid O’Shea’s fines, and the penal powers in the arbitration act became a dead letter for the next historical period.

Shortly after this the broad Labor left split into a more militant group and a more conservative group, and the more militant group, the Socialist Left in Victoria, and the much smaller NSW Socialist Left, emerged as a force for a period in ALP politics. Clyde Cameron tried to bring in an accord-type prices and incomes arrangement at the 1971 ALP federal conference.

The Victorian Socialist Left and myself, as the NSW Socialist Left delegate, led the opposition to this. The official left and the CP, under pressure from the trade union ranks, got on-side with the Socialist Left and that wage-price freeze was resoundingly defeated at that conference. This set of circumstances contributed directly to the success of the wave of industrial militancy in Australia in 1972-75, the so-called wages explosion and wages breakout.

The point of this is that all these battles over strategy and direction in the workers movement took place, as they inevitably had to, in the broad labour movement dominated by the Labor Party. At that stage, realistic tactics addressing the grip of Laborism on the masses electorally did not lead to an accord or anything like it, and the pressure to defeat it came in the first instance from forces inside the Labor Party, such as the Victorian Socialist Left and George Petersen and myself in the NSW Socialist Left.

The Communist Party, which was an independent organisation, mainly outside the ALP, was less vigorous in its opposition to that accord arrangement, although it ultimately had to join the opposition because of the spirit of the times.

Boyle’s politically dishonest narrative is a piece of simple-minded, ahistorical determinism, which starts from his present theory, not from any accurate historical account of developments in the labour movement.

When you get to the 1981-82 Prices and Incomes Accord, for instance, the idea of such an accord did not originate, primarily, inside the ALP. The inventor of the accord (who really had a right to patent it), was Laurie Carmichael, the main CPA ideologue in the trade unions, who had never held a Labor Party ticket in his life. The CP, an independent party outside the ALP, was the ideological engine of the accord, which was then eagerly picked up by the more conservative Laborites, as you might expect.

The accord was essentially, in part, the product of the ideological crisis of world Stalinism, and was replicated in Stalinist organisations all over the world, including those in France and Italy, which were mass independent parties.

Concretely, when the accord was adopted in Australia, initially at a select federal unions conference, the only union official who stubbornly voted against it was the then secretary of the NSW nurses’ union, who has been a member of the ALP since 1975. At the ACTU conference over Accord Mark II, the main opponent of it was Gail Cotton, then secretary of the food preservers union, also a member of the ALP. In both these instances leading figures in the Communist Party, who were quite emphatically outside the ALP, were the main advocates of the accord.

Peter Boyle’s short narrative involves a kind of almost lunatic semi-Calvinist predestination. In his universe any practical recognition of the still existing grip and hegemony of Laborism is the road to damnation.

To make this work, he has to chop bits off at both ends to make the actual history fit this schema that any association with Labor inevitably corrupts.

This is clearly untrue, and does not stand up well against even a cursory overview of the history of the labour movement in Australia. The history of the DSP, Boyle’s own political outfit, is instructive.

After all the betrayals of the accord period, the DSP entered into quite elaborate negotiations with a Communist Party still quite unreconstructed in its attitude to the accord, aiming to form a New Left Party. At that time, internally, the DSP leadership insisted that differences over the accord should not be a definitive obstacle to forming a new party with the CP. These negotiations only fell apart because the CP walked away from the DSP.

Boyle’s second post is a bit more measured. He implicitly skites a bit about his capacity to get intelligence, giving us the minutes of the rival conservative coalition.

These minutes are pretty revealing, and show that the conservative coalition has shrunk to a bit of a rump. Quite clearly, the dominant force in the conservative coalition, if you judge by these minutes, are the Stalinist organisations: the CPA (formerly SPA), CPA-ML, and the Search Foundation, the cashed-up ghost of the old CP. The Laborites just go along for the ride, so to speak. But Boyle insists in squeezing this phenomenon into his procrustean bed of all-pervading Laborite dominance. He deliberately insults me by lying about what I said. He distorts the fact that I noted that socialists can make use of the limited opposition to the war expressed even by Crean, into me wanting to build a movement behind Crean’s policy.

Well I can’t stop Boyle deliberately distorting what I say, that’s his business, but the kind of orientation I spelt out speaks for itself. I’ve been as involved as anyone else in campaigning to build an agitational mass movement for withdrawal of imperialist troops from Iraq, I just believe that a pedagogic attitude to the existing consciousness of a large part of the masses on the left of society, who accept the leadership of the Laborites, is useful in constructing such a movement.

Boyle makes great play of David Spratt in Victoria deciding at this point to leave the ALP. David Spratt is an old friendly acquaintance of mine. He is mainly a movement kind of activist, who is the main co-ordinator of the Victorian Peace Network, and in that context is frequently an organisational opponent of the DSP faction because his links are with the Trades Hall, the Socialist Left and lately with the Greens.

In other contexts he is one of the people the DSP pay out on quite vigorously because his estimate of the current situation in the antiwar movement is a bit different to theirs. There is no likelihood of David Spratt joining the Socialist Alliance.

He will inevitably join the Greens. His move from the ALP to the Greens is indicative of a similar shift among a much broader layer of movement activists in Melbourne. The DSP and the Socialist Alliance don’t figure in David Spratt’s universe, except as sporadic factional opponents.

The dead-end sectarianism of the DSP leadership’s approach to the workers movement is expressed in this paragraph:

“Of course this is not to say that the antiwar movement shouldn’t welcome ALP members and even ALP branches into its ranks. The Stop the War Coalition has reached out very warmly to Labor MPs Harry Quick and Carmen Lawrence. They’ve been put on every platform possible and encouraged in any defiance of Crean’s standing-ovation-for-Bush and bipartisanship on the ‘war on terrorism’.”

This piece of political idiocy sums up the strategic approach of the DSP leadership. It’s exactly the sort of rhetoric that the Stalinists used to use during their Third Period episodes: “united front from below”, so-called.

This was an approach against which Trotsky, in particular, constantly polemicised. The vintage distaste displayed in Boyle’s comment that the Stop the War Coalition accepts “even ALP branches”, as if ALP branches were leper colonies, gives you some hint of the political outlook of the DSP leadership.

The eccentric view embodied in his comment that “the Stop The War Coalition has reached our very warmly to Labor MPs Harry Quick and Carmen Lawrence” is a bit like a rather self-important mouse reaching out to an uncomprehending elephant. The implicit condescending and insulting tone towards Carmen Lawrence is disproportionate to the realities of the situation. The Stop the War Coalition, while by no means a negligible force, is basically a smallish group of socialist militants.

It has some successful activities to its credit, but its footprint and influence in society is rather limited. Carmen Lawrence has probably just been elected national president of the Labor Party by a majority of the 20,000 members who voted. In terms of society at large, Carmen Lawrence is a considerably more influential figure than anyone in the Stop the War Coalition, and the ALP is a mass organisation with its primary base in the organised working class, which shares with a secondary formation, the Greens, overwhelming hegemony on the left of society.

Between them, the ALP and the Greens will get about 50 per cent of the vote in the next federal election. The Socialist Alliance will get inevitably get less than half a per cent in those elections. In these circumstances, to represent the Stop the War Coalition as some kind of great power graciously reaching out to Carmen Lawrence and Harry Quick is a grandly lunatic way of viewing Australian society strategically.

It goes without saying that I agree with Boyle about the need for the Stop the War Coalition, in which we are both involved, to respond with any forces that it can muster to international calls for major demonstrations against the occupation of Iraq in the New Year. In my view, the success of such demonstrations is more likely to be assisted by a realistic view of the influence of the Stop the War Coalition, and sensible strategies flowing from such a realistic view.