Bob Gould, 2003

Stir-crazy Rip van Winkles
A personal response from one of “the Ozleft mob” to a strange and irritable post by a DSP member

Source: Ozleft, December 26, 2003
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

From the cranky, eccentric socialist bookseller to the stir-crazy Rip Van Winkles who inhabit the DSP national office

December 26, 2003

Terry wrote on the Green Left list:

Some rambling thoughts and requests. Can Tristan and the Ozleft mob please outline to the 1000 or so activists in the Socialist Alliance what specific progress they are making within the ALP (and perhaps the Greens) to organise socialists politically on the understanding that capitalism must be overthrown and replaced with an entirely new system.

We need facts and figures on this not just theories, wishful thinking and hopes.

How many revolutionary socialists are you comrades working with inside the ALP, how are they organised, do you have a faction and who are the key activists in it, do you control branches, how are you educating ALP members and supporters about the need for revolutionary socialism, what specific initiatives are you carrying out, how do you envision socialism being won through the ALP, are you prepared to split from the ALP right at some time?

Unless these sort of questions are addressed, and answers provided that show that real progress is possible at this time, arguing that socialists — and especially Marxists — abandon the most successful Australian socialist project in decades for the ALP quagmire is tantamount to sabotage.

I don’t much like having a go at Terry because I have a certain respect for him. I know him a bit and he has several good features. The first one, obviously, is that he has stuck at socialist activity since he joined the DSP/SWP as a young man more than 20 years ago, and he has kept doing it and has persisted in the financially difficult life of a political full-timer for much of that period.

In addition to that, he’s one of the few leaders of the DSP who has done some independent ideological work involving research and writing, and his long article on the national question is an important basic document, which I often embarrass him by indicating as a very useful primary source, along with the work of Mike Karadjis on the Balkans.

This political position on the national question, elaborated by Terry and Mike Karadjis, is something with which I agree, and it goes without saying that I support Karadjis in his current war on the national question on Marxmail, in which he has reduced some of Louis Proyect’s more benighted associates to almost incoherent fury.

I haven’t bought into that debate on Marxmail because Mike Karadjis and an energetic former member of the Workers League in New Orleans, Les Evanchik, have done a good job of pinning Louis and Co’s ears back. It would be pointless for me to repeat Karadjis and Evanchik in different words.

Despite my agreement in general with Terry and Mike Karadjis on the national question, Terry’s recent post about the Socialist Alliance is such a classic statement of sectarianism and eccentric Third Period partinost that it demands a reply. This post is so weird that it has even crossed my mind that Terry is playing a kind of devil’s advocate role. Who knows?

The first point that must be challenged in Terry’s post is the implicit proposition that anyone engaged in any other form of socialist activity than the DSP’s Socialist Alliance project (in the form that the DSP leadership insists on) is thereby effectively sabotaging the revolutionary socialist movement.

That proposition is really mad. At the risk of harping on an obvious theme, it resembles the Third Period position of the Communist Party in the early 1930s.

There is a very useful collection of essays on the history of communism in Britain, by Woodhouse and Pearce, which was first published by Healy’s New Park, and later republished by the British SWP’s Bookmarx. This collection of essays, mainly by Pearce, a member of the British Communist Party historians’ group, who broke with Stalinism and became a Trotskyist in 1956, is of enormous value. In due course Ozleft will make available the whole of the essay, The Communist Party and the Labour Left.

In this essay, Brian Pearce says the following:

“Very different, however, was the mood prevailing in Moscow at this time. Stalin had recently ousted Bukharin and was waging war on the ‘Rights’. Instructions conveyed to the British Communist leaders at a meeting in Berlin immediately following the election, included … in our general campaign against the Labour Party we should emphasise that it is a crime equivalent to blacklegging for any worker to belong to the Labour Party.”

This line from the Comintern during the Third Period is strikingly similar to Terry’s formulation.

The Third Period Stalinists, who denounced Laborism so ferociously, had behind them the enormous moral support and weight of the USSR. That gave their ultraleftism a certain objective momentum. The DSP leadership, by contrast, is a tiny group operating at a difficult time in a relatively conservative country, and yet it seems mad enough to make accusations of sabotaging the socialist movement, via Terry’s post, implicitly against all other socialists, of whom there are some thousands in other groups, the ALP and the Greens, and unorganised socialists and independents, who don’t support this particular project of the DSP.

Terry’s formulation is the purest sectarianism. It’s important to consider the context in which Terry issues this ultimatum.

This is a moment when the DSP leadership, at a closed DSP conference, intends to force through a position (in sweaty mid-summer heat at Richmond), which it will then finalise in the structures of the Socialist Alliance, that Green Left Weekly become the official newspaper of the Socialist Alliance. A large number of the affiliates of the Alliance spoke and voted against this proposition, but the DSP intends to do it anyway, relying heavily on the success of its tactic of organising a caucus of ostensible independents in the Alliance, most of whom are in reality DSP “non-party Bolshevik” supporters of the DSP, who run the Alliance in consultation with the DSP.

The DSP leadership is running around blackguarding the other groups for “obstructing the process” by not immediately agreeing to the DSP’s proposals about Green Left Weekly.

People who “sabotage the Alliance” (by not being in it) like me, by arguing with the DSP on tactical matters from outside the Alliance, and the affiliates, which try to argue their point inside the Alliance, are equally anathematised for a kind of objective betrayal for not immediately jumping to attention when the DSP leadership cracks the whip.

That’s the reality behind the extravagant rhetoric about the Alliance in Terry’s post, in Peter Boyle’s posts and in Dave Riley’s posts.

Terry’s unquestioned dedication to the socialist movement, which is demonstrated by his modest life-style, has a certain flip side. Despite his extravagant rhetoric in this post, a certain frustration shows through, that the DSP’s project is running into all kinds of practical difficulties, and Terry and the DSP leadership are laying the basis for blaming the difficulties of the project on political saboteurs and wreckers, such as presumably myself, rather than having a good look at the viability of this type of regroupment project in current political circumstances.

In this post Terry sounds a bit like a kind of stir-crazy Rip Van Winkle, as indeed, do a number of other DSP full-timers who participate in this discussion. They denounce all kinds of other socialists outside the DSP for assorted alleged betrayals and they seem to look at the world in a hyped-up, rather imaginary way, which stems to some extent from their physical isolation from the broader labour movement, and even from much social contact with anyone on the left outside the DSP.

This was also the occupational hazard of the functionaries and political full-timers of the old Communist Party, which had many more such people than the DSP. It also had a vastly larger membership. Dedicated full-timers such as Terry, the other DSP fulltimers, and many of the old Stalinist functionaries, fall very easily into the habit of identifying the interests of the workers’ movement with the interests of what they narrowly conceive to be the party.

The actual class struggle figures a good deal further down their scale of considerations than the interests of their organisation. This is sharpened in the minds of the committed full-timers by the dedication that they practice, and it’s fed by their relative isolation from the external world.

In the case of someone like Terry, it would possibly be better for the socialist movement, and for him, if he used his unquestioned talents in serious theoretical work rather than the deadening journalistic and organisational routine of the group.

In Terry’s case, he’s clearly capable of very important, serious Marxist theoretical work and research, and possibly independent new analysis. The work he has done on the national question indicates that.

The peculiar way the fulltimers in the DSP and other socialist sects view the world raises another obvious political problem. The model of Leninism that all the groups have taken over from Zinoviev via Cannon is carefully codified by Doug Lorimer in his recent article in Links.

This model requires careful and serious discussion, and I’m currently working on a long piece arguing with Lorimer’s version, which will appear shortly. One central issue, which I’ll discuss at greater length in the other article, is relevant in this context. The centralised Zinoviev-Cannon model of organisation, insofar as it was taken over from Lenin and the Comintern, was predicated on fairly imminent revolutionary possibilities.

The centralisation stemmed from the imminent revolutionary possibilities and necessities. This excessive emphasis on centralisation looks quite different in the context of the recent 30 years of relative capitalist stability. A long period of excessive centralisation in relatively successful small socialist organisations with a lot of fulltimers, seems inevitably to turn these groups into sects, and that’s a big political problem.

In all the groups with this model of organisation, the political line tends to be developed in a pyramidal way, from the top down, by a leadership just about all of which is part of the apparatus of fulltimers, and the political line tends to reflect the interests of perpetuating this apparatus, rather than being influenced, as it ought to be, by the ebb and flow of the class struggle. This is a political problem that exists despite the personal dedication and self-denial of many members of this apparatus.

Terry throws off at the end of his bizarre post a formulation about the revolutionary socialist project, as if that was something finished and obvious. Blind Freddy can see that it’s exactly in the area of what a socialist program and transitional practice might look like, that there is a real crisis of Marxist theory.

Karadjis and Terry have done extremely useful work on trying to bring Marxist theory on the national question up to date, in difficult modern conditions, but the general question of what a transition to socialism may really look like is still unresolved. Terry is clutching at the past in a rather thoughtless way when he throws out trite remarks about revolutionary socialism in the way he does.

These are the kinds of questions that preoccupy me to the core of my identity as a committed and convinced revolutionary socialist in difficult new conditions. John Percy, Peter Boyle and others have ridiculed our efforts on Ozleft to raise serious ideological questions of considerable complexity, and they particularly ridicule my writing on a number of questions.

They don’t engage much with what I say, they just ridicule it. But despite this ridicule the hits we get on some of the more serious material on Ozleft indicate that there’s a great deal of interest in these questions.

The DSP leadership is as pleased as punch that it has acquired my old sparring partner, Humphrey McQueen, as a kind of political mascot, on the basis of the DSP leadership’s late-life conversion to Humphrey’s extreme leftism concerning the Australian workers’ movement. It’s still to be tested what Humphrey or the DSP leadership will spell out as a comprehensive socialist program for the workers’ movement.

They continually stress that there’s nothing wrong with the movement behind Hugo Chavez in Venezuela not having a specifically socialist program, or even many short-term socialist proposals, and they have a similar attitude to other leftist organisations in Indonesia or other Third World countries. In those situations they stress that what matters is the trajectory of movement. By contrast, in the Australian workers’ movement they are routinely ultraleftist about everyone being obliged to be a revolutionary socialist, when they haven’t even resolved very clearly what revolutionary socialism means in current conditions.

The DSP leadership is threatening to publish a new magazine in collaboration with Humphrey and a few others, and that looks like an excellent project. It should address as a matter of urgency what a serious socialist program for transition would look like in current conditions. That should be the first big discussion in the new magazine, in my view.

Bob Gould and the Socialist Alliance

At the very first Sydney public meeting to launch the Socialist Alliance, I spoke from the floor generally supporting the idea of socialist regroupment and proposing an alliance with two strands, one of which was the project that the DSP was interested in, involving groups that wanted to come together to run against the Laborites electorally.

I suggested a second strand for the alliance, collaborating with the first, which might have involved other socialists, such as myself, with different electoral commitments, such as to the ALP and the Greens, or none, such as anarchists. I distributed a leaflet advocating this position, which we will shortly put up on Ozleft to remind people.

John Percy came down on me like a ton of bricks, and the ever-vitriolic Peter Boyle ridiculed my occasional agitator’s stutter in the safe haven of the DSP internal bulletin.

From that moment on, the DSP has prosecuted a small political war against any socialists that operate in the ALP, the Greens or other groups, branding them obstacles to the socialist movement because they don’t dance immediately to the DSP leadership’s current tactical prescriptions.

This is the situation that has given rise to my polemic with the DSP leadership over the Labor Party, which has now gone on for a couple of years.

John Percy, Peter Boyle and others in the DSP leadership choose to portray me as some kind of crank or eccentric with no influence anywhere. That’s their judgment and they’re entitled to it, and others will have to make up their own minds as to whether that’s accurate.

The DSP leadership often says “why bother arguing with Bob Gould” but they argue with me anyway, because they have to. I get a different kind of reaction, a parallel reaction, actually, in the broader labour movement, in the ALP, Green circles, and just about anywhere outside the DSP’s immediate orbit.

It takes the form of: “Fuck it, Bob, why do you spend so much time arguing with the DSP. They’re a pain in the neck and they have little influence.” My answer to all those people on the left, of whom there are a very large number (Terry shouldn’t underestimate the extent of hostility to the DSP out there, it’s much wider than the hostility to Bob Gould, although there is also a fair amount of hostility to Bob Gould among more conservative sections of the left).

My answer to these other leftists is that despite the systematic sectarianism of the DSP leadership, the 300 or so members of the DSP are an important part of the small numbers of people in Australia who still consider themselves Marxists, and it’s hard to envision a project of socialist or Marxist regroupment (which interests me deeply) without confronting the physical existence of the DSP and the other small socialist groups that have some of the same sectarian features.

At some point material reality should force a serious political discussion on perspective, even on sects such as the DSP and some others.

I have been advocating such a public discussion on perspectives among committed socialists for some time. I’m aware, obviously, that this kind of thing doesn’t necessarily go in a straight line.

It’s worth quoting the book, The Psychology of Revolution by Gustav le Bon, (T. Fisher Unwin, 1913) on page 41, le Bon says about the possibilities of human reason and serious discussion:

“Reason being powerless to affect the brain of the convinced, Protestants and Catholics continued their ferocious conflicts. All the efforts of their sovereigns to reconcile them were in vain. Catherine di Medici, seeing the party of the reformed church increasing day by day in spite of persecution, and attracting a considerable number of nobles and magistrates, thought to disarm them by convoking at Poissy in 1561, an assembly of bishops and pastors with the object of fusing the two doctrines. Such an enterprise indicated that the queen, despite subtleties, knew nothing of the laws of mystic logic. Not in all history can one cite an example of a belief destroyed or reduced by means of refutation. Catherine did not even know that although toleration is with difficulty possible between individuals, it is impossible between collectivities. Her attempt failed completely. The assembled theologians hurled texts and insults at one another’s heads, but no one was moved. Catherine thought to succeed better in 1562 by promulgating an edict for Protestants to unite in the public celebration of their cult.”

I’m not as pessimistic as Gustav le Bon. It’s obvious that getting Marxist socialists to engage in a serious discussion of disputed issues faces some of the same problems that faced Catherine de Medici in trying to mediate discussion between Catholics and Protestants, nevertheless the world has moved on a long way since the 16th century and serious public discussion among Marxists ought to be possible.

The politically most dangerous aspect of Terry’s post is the last part, where he spells out to socialists in the Labor Party and to some extent in the Greens what, according to his rubric, they should do. Well, he has unintentionally raised some pretty serious questions. They way he describes an entry tactic is more or less what the DSP did in the Nuclear Disarmament Party and the first phase of the development of the Greens. It’s also pretty much the DSP behaved when it stacked and took over the first NSW Socialist Left in 1971, when the Socialist Left was in decline, and almost immediately liquidated it. The net result of this kind of entry tactic was the eventual disappearance of the NDP and the effective exclusion of the DSP from the Greens at a very early stage, and it’s also the source of a great deal of caution on the part of activists in the ALP when they encounter the DSP.

Socialists operating in the Greens or the Labor Party ought to avoid Terry’s caricature of entrism like the plague. Serious socialists and Marxists working in the Greens, for instance will, I don’t doubt, in due course get themselves organised, but with the rather grim history of the DSP’s past entrism in the Greens, I’m pretty certain that socialists in the Greens will study the DSP’s past entry in the Greens as a kind of manual of what not to do.

Much the same applies to the question of socialist organisation in the ALP. I’m strongly in favour of socialists in the ALP organising themselves. One thing I’m quite sure of is that future socialist organisation in the ALP may have some of the aspects that Terry desires, such as an emphasis on socialist education for youth, but it’s highly unlikely to follow the rest of Terry’s crude model.

We are just coming out of a period of general shift to the right in the Labor Party, the unions and society as a whole, and the tasks for socialists in all spheres have a defensive aspect, and this applies also to the question of socialist organisation in the ALP.

At this stage in the ebb and flow of the class struggle my personal activities in the ALP, for instance, are quite modest. All last year and the year before I participated in Labor for Refugees, and I was one of its founding members in NSW.

I campaigned in an energetic way for a principled stand by Labor for Refugees on the refugee question. I campaigned in the ALP, with some success, along with many others, for opposition to the Iraq war, etc, etc.

As the ALP federal conference approaches, it appears to me that there will be two key issues at that gathering: refugee policy and economic policy. I will be lobbying strenuously that the left should, in a responsible way, consistent with recognising his leadership, stand up strongly to Mark Latham on both of these key questions.

I will also be arguing for concrete measures to revive the Labor left in this struggle, the Labor left being somewhat broader than a few individual revolutionary socialists such as myself. I would hope that at this federal conference a number of the leftist trade union leaders, to whom the DSP looks as the wave of the future, who are delegates to this important federal conference, will take the lead in such a careful agitation for better ALP policy on these questions.

These significant union leaders have a good deal more influence than Bob Gould or “the Ozleft mob” and they should lead this struggle on policy in the courageous way that Michelle O’Neill led the struggle on 60:40 at the last federal ALP conference.

The problem for Terry and the DSP leadership in relation to the ALP is this: independent of the failures of socialists or groups of socialists to prevent the ALP’s shift to the right in recent times, nevertheless the hegemony of the ALP (now in combination to a lesser extent with the Greens) over the leftist sector of society, is still total.

The question for serious socialists and Marxists in or out of the Labor Party or the Greens, is not any particular scheme of entrism, but the problem of the united front. The Labor Party, and now the Greens, as living mass organisations of the working class and the radical sector of the middle class, will inevitably throw up internal forces, groups and individuals on the left. One major question for Marxists remains how to relate strategically to these two organisations as a whole (the ALP-trade union continuum and the Green mass electoral party to the left of Labor). Flowing from this, the question arises of how to relate strategically to the left, which inevitably emerges in these plebian mass organisations. The question for Marxist socialists in this difficult kind of period, which is still posed brutally by this set of circumstances, is the question of the united front.

In relation to the united front towards the masses who support and are involved in the Labor Party, the Greens and the trade unions, the irresponsible and eccentric ultraleft total permanent exposure tactic of the DSP leadership is poisonous and destructive, and it estranges the group of people who follow the DSP from the larger part of the actual movement in society to the left. It is actually adopted by the DSP leadership mainly for the purpose of perpetuating the DSP as an organisation, rather than being based on the ebbs and flows of the class struggle.

A note about my own activities

I carefully maintain my personal presence in the ALP because I regard that as useful from a revolutionary socialist point of view, particularly because most of the revolutionary socialist left these days adopts a hopelessly sectarian posture towards the overwhelming majority of the left of society, who relate to Laborism. In practice, however, most of my activity these days is intellectual and theoretical-agitational. I make no apology for this.

With a small group of collaborators I have helped to put together the Ozleft website, which plays a useful role in precipitating serious discussion on the far left.

I write a lot these days on all the questions I consider important, which covers a considerably wider range than my current polemic with the DSP over strategy and tactics.

For many years I’ve also systematically maintained the socialist and leftist aspect of my bookshop, and in this particular way I help educate generation after generation of young socialists interested in ideas. I’ve just finished personally doing the six-monthly reorganisation of the left-hand catwalk of my bookshop, which is familiar to all, in preparation for the radicals from all over the country who tend to drift through my shop in the holiday period.

This kind of combination of practical activity and intellectual work and inquiry associated with it is not all that dissimilar to the kind of thing that Terry does as Green Left journalist-editor and occasional Marxist scholar, albeit in a different context.

Many people from time to time, including the DSP leaders, regard these activities of mine as corrupting the youth. Well, I intend to continue corrupting the youth in much this way until I drop off the twig, so to speak. I have good genes, and my parents and grandparents all survived into their eighties, touch wood.