Bob Gould, 2003

Ten days of interesting discussion
The Labor Party and the left

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

A lot has been said in the past week or so on the Green Left list and a couple of quotes seem apposite, one from Lenin and one from Marx:

“We need complete, truthful information. And the truth should not depend on whom it is to serve.” — V.I. Lenin

“History is whole cloth.” — Karl Marx.

The supporters of the DSP leadership in these discussions seem to me to violate both above precepts. By “history is whole cloth”, I understand Marx to be criticising, sharply, the tendency in his time of socialist theoreticians to trawl back through history and make facile judgments on past situations from their present political standpoint, and to try to fit those developments into a framework entirely dominated by their current political positions.

Such an approach to history is not Marxism but a kind of metaphysics, and DSP leadership supporters frequently resort to it.

Another feature of Marxist politics is that neglect or falsification of empirical evidence is extremely dangerous, and neglect of the empirical is one of the occupational hazards of sectarian Marxists.

The empirical question of Labor’s electoral support

It has become almost comical the way people like Peter Boyle, Dave Riley and Paperclayman seize upon every conjunctural poll, or even interpretation of a poll, that suggests a drop in Labor’s electoral support. They sound increasingly like reactionary journalists or Liberal politicians, who engage in a similar kind of literary exercise.

Paperclayman simply makes general assertions about how much the advanced sections of the masses “hate the Laborites”, and presents no evidence for this proposition.

Boyle grabs hold of Alan Ramsey’s tendentious attempt to turn his reading of past polls into the theory that the Labor vote has dropped to historically low levels. He ignores, because it doesn’t help his argument, a Newspoll of the previous week that suggested the Liberal vote had dropped and the Labor vote was more than 40 per cent. Boyle prefers Ramsey’s interpretation of past polls to Newspoll’s current figures.

Ramsey has his own agenda, as is obvious from the way he writes. He is an idiosyncratic, generally Labor-supporting, journalist, who is gunning for Crean, and he makes a case that's a bit tortuousabout the level of the Labor vote that’s a bit tortuous. In some respects Ramsey is a good bloke and in other respects he’s quite right wing, but his approach to polling evidence is anything but scientific. It’s good enough for Boyle, Riley and Paperclayman, however, because it suits their argument.

Predictably, Boyle jumps at one aspect of a Morgan poll a week later that has the Labor vote down to 35.5 per cent, but he ignores Morgan’s careful qualifier in the whole report that the poll was taken in a week very disadvantageous to Labor. To quote the Morgan report, titled Federal Election would be Too Close to Call:

During the polling period:

There’s another frequent poster on the Green Left list, a thoughtful resident left Laborite, Dennis-Michael Berrell. I have some disagreements with this bloke, but his posts are usually fairly well thought out, and he gives a kind of running commentary on polls and current political developments. The weakness of his approach, it seems to me, is that he concentrates more on conjunctural events like opinion polls, a bit like the supporters of the DSP leadership do and he, like them, rarely relates immediate events to underlying demographic or social trends. Nevertheless, his comments are usually more careful, comprehensive and factually based than those of the DSP leadership, and he frequently introduces a certain element of reality into the discussion.

The underlying Labor and Green electoral votes are objective material facts that can be calculated, within limits, and that reflect class divisions and forces in society

The question that’s impossible to jump over concerning the objective level of Labor electoral support is this: if the Labor vote is at the historically low levels that Boyle, etc, assert, how come Labor won the last elections in every state and territory, and how come the Labor vote federally recovered dramatically in the first Beazley election?

It’s quite clear, and widely acknowledged, that in the Tampa election a set of rather unusual factors came into play. There’s an important three-volume book about the electoral history of NSW, published by the state parliament, and I have written a lengthy piece examining it in detail, and in a rudimentary way superimposing census information on ethnicity and incomes on electoral patterns.

Tracking electoral trends, even in NSW, shows that the Labor vote has held up rather well, even despite the high housing prices in Sydney, which tend to predispose people on the urban fringe, the most affluent section who aren’t part of the big bourgeoisie, in favour of the Liberals.

The big new factor affecting the Labor vote is the consolidation of the Greens as an electoral formation, politically to the left of Labor, with a younger age profile than the Labor vote and with a higher educational profile.

It’s possible to predict fairly precisely the electoral parameters of the next elections. The Greens, on the left will get between 7 per cent and 11 per cent and Labor will get between 36 per cent and 41 per cent. The Labor vote is highly concentrated in areas where unionised blue-collar workers and recent migrants of non-English-speaking background live, which indicates that blue-collar and migrant communities tend to vote Labor.

The Green vote is concentrated in areas inhabited by more tertiary-educated people, and with somewhat higher incomes than the average Labor voter.

These observations about the parameters of the Labor and Green votes are empirical observations.

The far left vote for socialist groups will be less than 0.5 per cent. That’s also an empirical observation that has been thoroughly tested in recent times.

Whether the election result is at the higher end or the lower end of these parameters will be decided, as elections often are, by conjunctural events, the nature of the campaign, etc. If the poll result is at the higher end of these parameters, Labor will win the elections, and the Greens will increase their parliamentary representation, perhaps even having the balance of power in the Senate.

From the point of view of future prospects for the working class, socialism, radical mobilisation and leftist interests, it is highly desirable that Labor and the Greens win the election. Another victory for the Tories in current political conditions will tend to demoralise the whole workers, Labor, progressive, and Green movements.

From that point of view, the barely concealed glee of the DSP leadership contributors every time the polls suggest a possible Labor defeat is quite reactionary. It also cuts across the political instincts of most left-wingers, radicals or class-conscious workers, who strongly desire the defeat of Howard for the reasons I’ve just outlined, even if they’re not terribly enthusiastic about Labor.

Hostility directed at the Laborites is a big mistake going into a crisis election, and most progressive Australians are likely to react very negatively to this attitude from the DSP leadership, although most probably won’t put it into words or thoughts as sharply as I do.

No amount of extravagant rhetoric by Paperclayman about how the masses “hate the Laborites”, or desperate grasping by Boyle at Alan Ramsey’s interpretation, stands up against empirical observation.

Despite the forced, ahistorical constructions of the DSP leadership, which were cobbled together 20 years ago, that Labor and the Liberals are two equivalent, capitalist parties, it remains the case that the bulk of the organised, class-conscious working class in Australia, in particular its blue-collar and migrant sectors, remain Labor supporters. However disillusioned the masses are with the often reactionary policies of Labor’s leadership, there is little evidence of a large-scale shift away from Labor to any progressive electoral alternative among the organised working class and migrant communities.

Labor also retains the electoral support of a significant segment of the left-leaning part of the new social layers and the middle class, despite the rapid consolidation of the Green organisation and electoral vote politically to the left of Labor.

The Boyle-Riley-Paperclayman bunch grasp at a lot of straws. Paperclayman says:

“I am of the view that the Socialist Alliance won’t break out electorally for some time — it may take a few years to even get above 1.5 or 2 per cent — so the main markers today are the trends. That the ALP goes down so many per cent is not a guarantee that the formations left of Labor are going to pick up that lost support.”

The perspective involved in this statement is delusional. The real problem, from the point of view of the DSP leadership is that even after the quite considerable effort of getting registered on the ballot paper in the Senate in the various states, and in the state upper houses, the Socialist Alliance’s vote will inevitably be less than 0.5 per cent, nothing like even 1.5-2 per cent.

It gets worse. There’s no indication that vote is likely to change at all because of the substantial reality of the consolidation of the Green political formation as the electoral alternative to the left of Labor. There is no historical example, or present indication, of relatively small socialist cadre groups having any possibility of building themselves up into a recognised broad electoral alternative to major, established mass working class or leftist political formations by simple propaganda cum electoral activity. In current circumstances, and for the foreseeable future, in Australia it won’t happen.

Towards the end of this week a new element entered the discussion. Dennis-Michael Berrell speculated on the list about possible entryism in the Greens. Wisely, all of the other participants distanced themselves from any general statement about entryism in the Greens.

Obviously socialists trying to establish themselves as political citizens in the Greens need loose talk about “entryism in the Greens” like a hole in the head.

Discussions of “entryism in the Greens” raises the awkward history of the ham-fisted, excessively organisationally preoccupied intervention of the DSP in both the Nuclear Disarmament Party, and later the then embryonic Green organisation, 10 or 15 years ago. Unfortunately the DSP in both instances blundered (via an exaggerated preoccupation with the structural arrangements in each organisation) into a considerably premature battle for organisational hegemony.

The war of position in the NDP between the DSP on the one hand and the minor public figures who had initiated the NDP on the other, was a rather cruel conflict on both sides, and contributed considerably to the demise of the NDP. The early DSP entryism in the Greens, which also focussed on battles over organisational arrangements, was unsuccessful, and after some acrimony the DSP departed from the Greens.

The Boyle-Paperclayman bunch responded fairly carefully to the question of socialists in the Greens. They did not subject the socialists in the Greens to the kind of abuse they reserve for socialists, like myself and others, who operate in the ALP. On Wednesday Paperclayman even put it into words:

“Being in the Greens or not being in the Greens isn’t anything to get steamed up about I reckon, so long as it is in something outside, and to the left of, the ALP. I think that’s the main political marker for the significance of what we speak. In terms of the more complicated strategic picture this is a baseline which we share in common.”

Further on he buttresses his argument with a quote from George Petersen towards the end of his life when George was a bit depressed and in a very leftist mood. George and I were close political associates for many years. We collaborated in many battles and projects, and we also had a number of political disagreements. For those that who be interested, I made my estimate of George’s political activity at the Sydney memorial meeting for him.

One of the disagreements I had with George was initially over whether he should vote for Neville Wran in the Labor caucus over Pat Hills. George’s inclination was to abstain. I argued that Marxists never abstain, and that Wran was marginally better than Hills. My argumentation had some effect, but what swung the day on that question with George was the intervention of Jack Ferguson, the deputy Labor leader, later deputy premier, who was a close personal friend of George.

George often proceeded, as well as on the basis of principle, also on the basis, all other things being equal, of friendship. George’s vote was decisive, Wran was elected with all the consequences of which we are aware, some good, some not so good, from the point of view of socialists and the working class.

One of the paradoxes of George’s decisive vote in that Labor Party caucus was the unforeseen outcome for electoral arrangements in NSW. Much to the amazement of all observers, at the high point of his electoral popularity, Wran succeeded, where all previous Labor leaders had failed in reforming the NSW upper house, and replacing what had been a totally reactionary appointed body with a body elected by proportional representation, with the lowest statewide quota in the country.

For instance, the three Greens in the NSW upper house owe their electoral success in part to this reform, which flows directly from Petersen’s one vote electing Wran to the Labor leadership way back then.

Ten days ago Peter Boyle was in full swing denouncing me for assorted treacheries, and particularly for the crime of allegedly covering for Doug Cameron by objecting to the reckless tone, factual errors, and sectarian anti-Labor orientation of the coverage in Green Left Weekly of the Queensland AMWU elections.

Then the physical assault on Cameron erupted in the press, and several injudicious rank-and-file DSP contributors to the Green Left discussion list posted contributions that carried Boyle’s intemperate rhetoric about Cameron a stage further into very dangerous territory.

After Ed Lewis of Ozleft quickly struck a note of caution about this on the discussion list, and Boyle, to his credit, saw the point, the very sensible moderator of the list, Margaret, removed the problematic posts from the website.

The point I’d make is that the reason the two DSP rank-and-filers said what they said is political. The tone set by the Boyle crowd in their ferocious verbal attacks on a united front approach to the Laborites is taken by many of the rank-and-file as good coin, and normal considerations of political judgment tend to be ignored in these circumstances.

Happily, the tone of the Green Left Weekly coverage of events in the metalworkers union has become markedly more careful. I believe that this improvement is probably a result, both of the lessons of the eruption on the Green Left list, and of pressure from the left-wing militants who are active in the metalworkers union. It is notable that Steve Dargavel, the ALP member, and former Labor parliamentarian, who is the current leader of Workers First in Victoria, made a very considerable point, which was quite properly reported in Green Left Weekly, of condemning the attack on Cameron, without any qualifications or speculation about who might have done it.

Historical note

Dave Riley, a staunch Socialist Alliance ostensible “independent” supporter of the DSP leadership, posted an historical piece on November 22 that was notable for the fact that it only mentions retreats and defeats that took place in and around the ALP. This is a completely reccentric version of labour movement history in the period he discusses. The reader should consult my articles The Communist Party in Australian Life and The DSP book of parables: Jim McIlroy and the Red North.

The point about the working class history of the period is that as well as the defeats and retreats that Riley notes, there were also a large number of upheavals and rebellions in and around the Labor Party, a number of which had good outcomes for the working class.

For instance, the old Trotskyists, who Riley considers a bit of a sideshow, were very important in turning the Communist Party’s flank, so to speak, and precipitating a large proletarian industrial mobilisation that eventually achieved its aim of the 40-hour week through the usual channels of the unions and the Labor Party.

That was a very major reform for the time. In the whole post-war period the working class operated in a limited reformist framework through the well-worn channels of the traditional labour movement. The Communist Party and the much smaller group of Trotskyists in the unions started fights and mobilisations, and many social gains were achieved that were eventually registered through the traditional channels of labour councils, Labor Party conferences, etc. Riley should consult the very useful book by Tom Sheridan, Industrial Relations in the Chifley Era, if he disbelieves me.

A considerable number of events and mobilisations had good outcomes from the point of view of the working class: the defeat of the Communist Party Dissolution Bill by the Labor Party, the unions and the Communist Party; the defeat and isolation of the Industrial Groupers in the labour movement by a coalition of the same forces led by the then Labor leader Dr Evatt; the mobilisation against the Vietnam War, commenced largely in the space provided by the opposition of the courageous Labor leader Calwell to the war; the final abolition of the White Australia policy, and its elimination from the Labor platform; the defeat of wage-price freeze proposals at the 1971 Labor Party federal conference. All of these events were marked by conflict and interplay of various labour movement factions, including the CP and the Trotskyists, but they were all ultimately fought out through a combination of mass working class mobilisations and political battles in the official channels of the labour movement, Labor Party conferences, trade union conferences, labour councils, etc.

Even in the period when Riley was active, as he describes it, in the CP, the main feature wasn’t a defeat in the ALP, it was a victory, when the Victorian Socialist Left was formed, primarily through a revolt of lower ranking leftist union officials inside the ALP against the more conservative leftist federal officials, and in this instance the Bernie Taft wing of the CP apparatus, who had de facto supported federal intervention against the leftists in the Victorian ALP.

The formation of the Socialist Left at that moment had the character of a mass revolt, and directly led to the defeat of the prices and incomes proposal at the 1971 ALP federal conference, almost immediately afterwards. Dave Riley’s account is a very flawed labour movement and socialist history, when it can only deal with defeats and retreats in an ALP framework, and not rebellions, upheavals and successes.

The strategic point of all the foregoing is this: there are some new factors facing revolutionary socialists. There is a certain element of truth in some of the things on which the DSP leaders tend to concentrate. It is important to notice, and base yourselves to some extent on, changes that are taking place. For instance, a new political formation, like the Greens, emerging to the left of the ALP, a bit outside the framework of the traditional class formations in Australian society, is a development with which Marxists have to come to terms in a realistic way.

Nevertheless, Marxists base themselves, primarily, on the class forces in society and from this point of view the most decisive sectors in Australia are the working class and the migrant communities. There is no question that the politics of the organised working class and the migrant communities revolve around the Labor Party-trade union continuum. From that flows the necessity of a strategy that takes into account both the new developments and the underlying, ongoing class and social divisions in society. This poses pretty clearly the need for serious Marxists to pursue a united front strategy towards the Labor Party and the Greens of the sort that I sketched out in my recent lengthy post about the coming elections.

The quixotic animosity that the DSP leadership has developed towards any leftist who considers it useful to engage in socialist activity in an ALP framework is a dangerous shibboleth and to try, for instance, to maintain that the leaders of most of the militant unions in Victoria are “reluctant ALP members” is politically delusional. Those Victorian militant union leaders are ALP members for practical, functional reasons. They consider it useful in their activities as militant socialist union officials to exercise their institutional power in the ALP for whatever radical things they wish to achieve.

In the final analysis this stems from their recognition of certain current objective realities in Australian society and politics. No amount of exposure rhetoric, moral pressure, or in my case abuse, from the DSP leadership is likely to have much effect on the political behaviour of the large number of serious socialists who are still active to a greater or lesser degree in the ALP environment. The activity of such people is based on objective circumstances and considered political objectives.

The sectarian demeanour towards the Labor Party of the DSP leadership is badly misleading the DSP membership. The failure of the DSP leadership to draw back from its shibboleths, to look at Australian political reality in a more objective spirit and to seriously consider reorienting their organisation in the direction of the serious application of a united front strategy, is a barrier to the numerical and political growth of the DSP, and that of the Socialist Alliance.