Bob Gould, 2004
Source: Ozleft, September 3, 2004
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter
Difficulties and arguments about perspectives and orientation in small socialist groups often lead to outbreaks of extremely authoritarian leadership behaviour.
The germs of this kind of authoritarian behaviour are often present in the body politic of small Marxist groups in a similar way that the malaria virus remains in the human organism once it is initially infected.
In one of the more sensible and relatively sizeable propaganda groups, Socialist Alternative, the fact that some prominent members in Sydney, Brisbane and other places challenged the leadership about some matters of perspective precipitated over the last few months an outbreak of leadership paranoia. That then led to extravagant leadership organisational measures against the Brisbane branch.
These measures led very quickly to a split, which was probably not what the leadership of Socialist Alternative wanted, and not what was initially projected by a number of the oppositionists in Sydney, and some oppositionists in Melbourne (who are still in Socialist Alternative).
But B tends to follow A in politics, and the organisational measures of the SA leadership against the Brisbane branch led to a split. The overwhelming majority of the Brisbane branch of Socialist Alternative, and about a third of the Sydney branch, a total of about 30 people, walked out of SA on August 24. That’s about one sixth of Socialist Alternative’s national membership. A number of oppositionists also remain in Socialist Alternative.
The point of view of the opposition is expressed in the resignation letter of the Sydney oppositionists. So far, the leadership of Socialist Alternative hasn’t published its point of view on the split.
The opposition comprises the overwhelming majority of the student activists of Socialist Alternative in Brisbane, where SA is influential on several campuses. The opposition also includes a majority of SA’s student activists in Sydney.
The impending split in Socialist Alternative seems to have been the immediate trigger for the Democratic Socialist Perspective leadership deciding to remove their main critical student member, LF.
About 18 months ago, the DSP leadership crushed the opposition of a number of long-standing members, and they left the DSP. In December and January, an opposition emerged in the DSP’s youth affiliate, Resistance, and this too was crushed and several DSP members let their membership lapse.
One well-known member of this opposition in the DSP and Resistance refused to leave the organisation, taking the view that his pluralist approach to the student movement was compatible with DSP membership.
The DSP leadership clearly didn’t like this approach of LF, who doggedly stayed in the DSP. The leadership responded by digging out of its vault the extremely draconian, several times revised and tightened up, rules of the DSP, and applied these rules to the offending member in their fullest rigour.
The DSP leadership’s conception of democratic centralism, as expressed in the DSP rules, spelled out in the charges against LF, makes fascinating reading. In its internal organisation, the Australian DSP is the same kind of political beast as Jack Barnes’s US SWP, and even the old WRP under the leadership of Gerry Healy.
According to the disciplinary conceptions of the DSP leadership, it’s difficult to say boo, or breathe, politically speaking, unless the DSP leadership has approved it. It’s a conception of organisation that has little to do with Lenin, and everything to do with the organisational and political degeneration that followed Lenin’s death.
The inevitable outcome was the expulsion of LF at a smallish Sydney DSP membership meeting of a bit less than 40 people on August 29. This meeting was held in the meeting room in the DSP offices at Abercrombie Street, Chippendale, on the same day the federal election was called.
A notable event at this meeting was a strenuous opposition to the expulsion by a respected, long-standing member, who said this process of scapegoating and expulsion of LF, which would clearly be carried at the meeting, ran against the whole conception of party democracy in the DSP and this process forced her to reconsider her membership after 20 years.
A most interesting contribution was made by the DSP general secretary, who made a speech containing one of his little Cannon-derived homilies about the history of the DSP. He forcibly asserted that one of the most vital organisational decisions taken by the DSP was when it flung out the Roger Barnes group way back at the start, in the early 1970s. The Barnes group, as everyone knows, included someone who is now a national leader of the Greens. The general secretary of the DSP is a bit like one of the old Bourbon kings, who learned nothing and forgot nothing.
To dispose of LF, the DSP leadership appointed a little committee, ostensibly to inquire into the charges, consisting of the Sydney DSP secretary, the major DSP-Resistance organiser, and one other.
This procedure would even make any bunch of right-wing Labor leaders blush, and it would certainly be viewed as rather strange by bourgeois lawyers. No petty-bourgeois notions like the separation of powers for the DSP leadership, also no concessions to the old tradition in the revolutionary movement of having disciplinary control commissions selected from the most respected veteran members of the organisation.
The committee of three selected to do the job made no pretense of impartiality, which is clear from the document written by one of the judges as to why LF should be expelled. Another of the judges spent a lot of time trying to persuade LF to resign to avoid the inevitable embarrassment for the DSP. What a farce!
The general political explanation for the expulsion seems to be the crisis of the DSP’s current project, the Socialist Alliance.
Clearly, despite all the bombastic rhetoric of the DSP leadership, the Socialist Alliance is stagnating. Those interested should carefully read Peter Boyle’s document, recently leaked, possibly by some DSP leadership insider, and published on Melbourne Indymedia. [No longer available on Indymedia — SP, 2011]
The political reality is that the DSP has created a new and different kind of structure, in which its only ongoing major ally is a substantially reduced ISO. Clearly the Socialist Alliance has little real internal political life outside the DSP.
If one judges by the number of people attending Alliance events, the DSP membership appears to be shrinking, and some long-standing members seem to have left.
The fact that fewer than 40 members attended a Sydney-wide membership meeting whose main business was the first political expulsion for some years, suggests that the DSP’s national membership has probably dropped to about 200, but it’s hard to know precisely what the real DSP membership is behind the bombast about the size of the Socialist Alliance.
Two years ago the Socialist Alliance was presented as having 2000 members. It is now presented as having about 1000. Clearly, the members consist largely of people who signed up to get the Socialist Alliance on the ballot. Peter Boyle says in his report that many SA members, and even DSP members, go to no meetings at all, so an extremely relaxed notion of membership applies in the Socialist Alliance.
All observers, including many SA members, say that SA branch meetings are tiny. Most the smaller affiliates of the SA, and even the ISO, have great difficulty in the face of the bland hypocrisy of the DSP leadership, which is heavily underlined by the expulsion of LF from the DSP.
The DSP leadership uses rhetoric about transforming the Socialist Alliance into a multi-tendency socialist party, by which it means in practice the political dominance of the DSP in the Alliance. As the expulsion indicates, the rules of the DSP, strictly enforced, circumscribe internal democracy in the DSP so far as to make it almost meaningless.
As LF pointed out at the expulsion meeting, the small number of internal bulletins produced since the national conference last new year, were totally taken up with international material. As one of the inquisitors-cum-judges, SM, noted in his email, no student fraction meetings had taken place and it would be unwise to have them anyway, because LF had a different point of view and was likely to present it.
The assertions of the DSP’s defenders on Melbourne Indymedia that the expulsion of LF was some kind of democratic process is absurd, unless one’s conception of democracy is totally dominated by the centralist aspect, and the democratic aspect is minimised to almost nothing.
The DSP’s crisis of perspective is clearly a product of its sectarian demeanour towards the ALP-trade union continuum and the Greens.
The DSP’s opportunism in several trade union situations does not seem to result in any significant increase in political influence for it.
An example of this is the situation in the Western Australian Electrical Trades Union, which I wrote about at length a few months ago. The current situation in the WA ETU is that the coalition, which the DSP member active in the union is a part of, closed down the lively, leftist union journal to remove a platform for the leftist state secretary Bill Game (the leader of the rival faction). Despite DSP rhetoric, no new journal has appeared about eight months down the track from the elections.
While the secretary, Bill Game (who is now in a minority on the executive to the Centre ALP-DSP coalition that controls the executive) was away on holidays, the state council of the ETU voted for an executive resolution to reaffiliate to the Labor Party. The only person to vote against reaffiliation was the DSP member, despite a strenuous appeal from DSP WA leader Ian Jamieson, who was a guest at the state council, for the union to affiliate to the Socialist Alliance.
The DSP can’t even persuade its allies to the right of it to go along with the DSP leadership’s ultraleft attitude towards the Labor Party.
Quite properly, a group of Victorian and WA militant unions have recently begun agitating against the vindictive jailing of Victorian union militant Craig Johnson. It’s worth noting that every one of the unions on the petition supporting Johnson, all of them blue-collar unions, remain firmly affiliated to the ALP, and they are pretty well all campaigning vigorously for the election of a Latham Labor government.
The unifying feature driving the authoritarian behaviour of the Socialist Alternative and DSP leaderships is, in the short term, developments in the student movement.
These developments take the following form: the dominant faction in the National Union of Students, is NOLS (National Organisation of Labor Students), and a smaller breakaway Labor student group, the Australian Labor Students (ALS).
There is also an ALP right-wing student group, Labor Unity, but NOLS and ALS, which are notionally on the Labor left, are the largest group nationally. The second-largest group nationally is the Broad Left, which was set up about 15 years ago by members of the old Communist Party, some anarchists, some Greens and other members of the non-Labor left. This broad current has been an important force in student politics for 15 years or so.
The DSP leadership, in particular, has historically had a hostile attitude to the Broad Left, and at one point the DSP students split away from it, although they went back later. The DSP leadership sees the Broad Left as a competitor to Resistance and the DSP.
The DSP leadership tends to view all competing radical groups in the student movement (and anywhere else, for that matter) as political enemies.
The DSP, which has historically recruited students, largely from information stalls in orientation week each year, has suffered a dramatic decline in the impact of its student work in the past few years. It has been eclipsed on most campuses either by the Labor students, the Socialist Alternative students, the Broad Left students or the ISO students.
In a similar way, the leadership of Socialist Alternative tends to regard all other groups in the radical left of the student movement as their bitter political enemies.
The leaderships of the DSP and Socialist Alternative are extremely hostile to each other.
Both the DSP and Socialist Alternative leaderships are extremely uneasy with what they regard as “rotten centrism” and or “swampism” in the student movement.
Both leaderships have an extraordinarily narrow conception of party building, and identify the interests of the revolution very narrowly with the interests of their small group. There are some difference between these two leaderships, the first being that the two organisations are in sharp competition and conflict; the second being that the DSP leadership tends to make Laborism and Labor the main enemy in the student movement, while the Socialist Alternative leadership tends to treat the Broad Left as its major opponent and tends to try for private treaties with the Labor students against the Broad Left.
It’s easy to see how both these leaderships react against the energetic young Marxist student activists who’ve emerged in the Broad Left, who want to mould the Broad Left as a whole into an activist, interventionist, broadly leftist formation.
Both the DSP and the Socialist Alternative leaders find this kind of development very threatening to their narrow conceptions of the interests of their organisations.
In Sydney, in particular, the oppositionists in Socialist Alternative have built a broader faction, demonstrably called Keep Left, into the dominant force in the Broad Left, with the strategic attitude of critical independence from the Labor students, combined with a careful united front approach to the Labor students.
Right now, elections for student representative councils are taking place and, for instance, Broad Left at Sydney University, mainly led by the Socialist Alternative oppositionists under the banner Keep Left, are running a full ticket, with some chance of success.
The expelled DSP member, LF, is a prominent student activist on another important campus, the University of Western Sydney. He has also taken a lead in trying to develop a broader, heterogeneous socialist student group on his campus.
Both the DSP and Socialist Alternative leaderships clearly fear any leftward-moving centrism, particularly when it’s crystallised and led by oppositionists in their own ranks.
From this political situation flow the fierce organisational measures taken by the leaderships of Socialist Alternative and the DSP.
As a long-time observer of socialist politics in the student movement, it seems to me that the deliberate development of heterogeneous intermediate groupings of socialists among students is an entirely sensible strategic approach, and I’ll be very surprised if the Keep Left type of initiative of the oppositionists effectively excluded from Socialist Alternative, and from the DSP, doesn’t grow strongly in the next period.
I’m acquainted with a number of these young militants. Most of them are very young, and they learn very fast. There are some difficulties in the current cultural situation, because a number of them have only initially read a bit of the literature of the socialist group that they first encountered, and some of them don’t initially have much interest in the broader culture of the labour movement, or in the traditions of socialist groups other than the ones that they first encountered.
In addition to this, the broader culture at the moment has a rather apolitical aspect, and in the student movement activism is considerably more important than theoretical development, and that’s a bit of a problem. On the other hand, the internet is the universal leveller, informer and educator these days. These contradictions produce a situation of combined and uneven development in socialist political culture.
For instance, it’s hard to keep secrets any more, and the grotesque political treatment of LF by the DSP leadership, in trying to stop him participating in some email list or other, just makes the DSP leadership appear authoritarian and crazy to the youth.
All the small socialist groups, even the most authoritarian, such as the DSP, in reality leak like sieves. The major documents of the internal disputes of all the groups are already up on the web, probably posted by participants.
The anarchoids on Melbourne and Sydney Indymedia have had a field day doing what they do, which is putting up caricatures under pseudonyms, etc, etc, but this only serves to cloud the issue a bit, which is that the small world of left politics tends to be aware of developments in the various groups as soon as they happen. No leadership can prevent that any more.
DSP supporters on Melbourne Indymedia made the rather grotesque assertion that the appearance of the DSP documents there is the work of the bourgeois state, citing the well-known COINTELPRO operation in the US.
But the COINTELPRO operation by the FBI and the CIA relied on faking documents. The problem for the DSP leadership is that the documents in question here are clearly not fakes. They are genuine documents that reveal the practices and outlook of the DSP leadership. No government agency had to fake them. It would have to be a very sophisticated government agency, indeed, that could have the political knowledge to reproduce the subtle nuances of DSP sectarianism.
The bureaucratic leaderships of both the DSP and Socialist Alternative both have some glimmerings of the future political problems that they will face from the energetic activity of the young oppositionists who have emerged in their own ranks.
All the rhetoric being used by the two leaderships against movementism, etc, are an indirect political recognition of the fact that the young rebels these leaderships are trying to control have learned a fair bit of Marxism, and a lot of political skills, relatively fast.
The rapid political education that these relatively significant numbers of young militants have acquired for themselves is now a very major factor on the Australian far left. This old rebel says more power to their collective elbow. We now live in very interesting times on the Australian far left.
See also: An expulsion from the DSP