Bob Gould, 2004

What unites Ozleft?
A response to Richard Fidler

Source: Ozleft, Green Left Weekly discussion list, September 14-15, 2004
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

Green Left discussion list, September 14, 2004

My, Richard, the sneering tone you adopt about a Bob Gould extended family. Well, I guess you appear to be part of the DSP extended family, so what can I expect?

Your question, however, makes it reasonable to explain a bit about Ozleft, most of which I’m sure you know. When you were here in Australia in December, I offered to organise a meeting so you could get the point of view of some of the smaller groups and other assorted leftists who weren’t closely in the DSP orbit, including some people in the Socialist Alliance.

You chose to reject that offer, which is your right, presumably because the DSP leadership were befriending you in Sydney, and that’s fair enough.

It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek of you to then throw off some smartarse comment about what unites people on Ozleft. If you’ve surfed the site, which I’m sure you have, you will note that it has a very wide range of documents, articles and creative pieces pertaining to the history of the Marxist left in Australia in all historical periods, up to and including the present.

What unites those who contribute to Ozleft is a conception of a united front between Marxists and other leftists in small socialist groups, in the Labor Party and broader labour movement, in the Greens, and leftists of various stripes who are unaffiliated.

The spirit that permeates Ozleft is the general idea of a practical united front between socialists and other leftists in all the spheres and the idea of a wide-ranging, open and relatively unrestricted serious political discussion among leftists, perhaps leading towards eventual regroupment. Surely that kind of idea isn’t too alien to you? I would have thought that the socialist project that you’re involved with in Canada was something similar.

I’m a bit amused that from a distance you insist that we adopt a common program forthwith, and tell you what it is. I’d be interested to see your Canadian common program.

We feel, at this stage, that the necessary emphasis has to be on frank and public discussion of theoretical and strategic issues.

The idea that the activities of Ozleft are directed against the DSP is a bit fanciful if you look at the spectrum of the material on the site. There is a bit of discussion involving the DSP on current strategic questions, precipitated by the DSP’s sectarian animosity towards Laborism and Laborites, to a lesser extent towards the Greens, and also by the DSP leadership’s extravagant claim for primacy and hegemony for its, in fact rather modest, Socialist Alliance project, which is more and more in practise an extension of the DSP.

The breadth of material on Ozleft and the ongoing real information about the affairs of the far left that we publish or point to is what gives the Ozleft project its momentum. It is true that articles about upheavals and splits in far left groupings get hundreds of hits within a few days of being put up. The latest example of this is my article pointing to DSP documents on Melbourne Indymedia relating to the expulsion of LF from the DSP, and Peter Boyle’s overly frank report on the DSP’s hegemonistic perspectives towards its ostensible allies in the Socialist Alliance.

Ozleft has two main functions: putting up a wide range of historical material with a variety of interest to the far left, and documenting current debates and developments on the far left in an accessible way.

In both spheres Ozleft is unique in Australasia. We’re a bit flattered that Ian Angus’s Socialist History project in Canada appears to be at least partly inspired by the historical aspects of Ozleft, and we convey our congratulations to Comrade Angus on a worthwhile project. (One small point, which you might convey to Comrade Angus is that it might have been courteous to source the document by Jack Kavanagh adhering to the Fourth International in 1940, to Ozleft, from which he obviously got it. The note to it on the Canadian site is confusing, because it refers to The Militant, without explaining that it’s the Australian Militant. A casual reader would probably infer that it’s from the US Militant. Anyway, that’s a small quibble, the Canadian site is an excellent one.)

You would have noted, I’m sure, over the past couple of days, rather over-the-top slanders from Peter Boyle and Norm Dixon accusing me of being a liar. As for gossip, we both know as political animals that one person’s gossip is another’s political information. I’m personally angered by the accusations that I’m a liar. No evidence is presented, but obviously the real issue is that the material I point to is genuine, and the issue is truth, not lying. That’s Norm’s problem, and Boyle’s problem, not mine.

On your most trivial point, Ozleft is used as a mailbox by a few people who prefer to use pseudonyms for obvious reasons, and it’s pretty clear from the pseudonyms who they are. Is that a problem? DSP personalities and others also use pseudonyms on the Green Left discussion list.

Hoping to see you next time you’re in Australia.

Unprincipled combinations

September 15, 2004

Dear Richard,

Thanks for your reply. Thanks for passing on my comments to Ian Angus, and he has promptly recognised that failing to acknowledge the Kavanagh article to Ozleft was an oversight and he intends to correct it.

I have always had the utmost respect for Ian Angus and his book on Canadian Trotskyism, which has a curious history in Australia.

In the early 1980s, when the Australian DSP had its spectacular falling out with the US SWP, I was doing my usual thing at a Big Red Bookfair, organised by the now-deceased Communist Party of Australia, and I discovered that on the DSP’s bookstall they were flogging off the Pathfinder editions of the writings of Trotsky, and a number of other major Pathfinder works for $1 each, including 10-15 copies of Ian Angus’s book.

When I established that the price wasn’t a mistake, I rang a couple of my associates and we bought 10 or 12 boxes of Pathfinder stuff — as much as was available — $1 a pop was a good price for us in those days, and for a few years thereafter, we had Trotsky’s writings and quite a few other Pathfinder editions, including Ian Angus’s book, in my shop at reasonable prices.

Flogging off Trotsky’s writings for $1 seemed to me at the time to reflect a bit of catharsis on the part of the DSP leadership, which at the time was making a lot of noise about how it had ditched all the errors of Trotskyism. Flogging the Trotsky works for $1 each had an aspect of a break with the Trotskyist past. They also flogged off the Farrell Dobbs books about Mineappolis for $1, and I found selling them to new generations of activists a very useful thing indeed, in the 1980s and 1990s.

It always seemed to me that even given the heat of the political dispute between the US and Australian SWPs, flogging off the Pathfinder books at that price was both an unwise commercial decision and an unwise political decision.

I sold my last copy of Ian Angus’s book from the shop about a year ago, and I look forward with enthusiasm to his new edition. It’s an excellent book.

I note your careful and reasonably accurate account of the discussions between us, but I would make two points strongly. First of all, you say there’s useful material on Ozleft, but some dross. Well, dross and useful are all in your point of view, and just for reasons of political clarification I’d be extremely interested to know what you consider dross.

It’s not that I’m particularly defensive about the wide range of material on Ozleft, but what you might consider dross might illuminate some of the political differences we might have.

Pontifically, you speak about how, as an experienced Trotskyist, you’re conscious of unprincipled combinations, etc and so forth. Here, you’re just belting out, in fact, the self-interested bullshit that you all learned from the nasty little piece by Joe Hansen about the “Abern Clique”, which is wheeled out as a standard club to belt anyone who disagrees with leaderships in Cannonist organisations.

In this particular mythology, in which you were trained, you just imply, as if it were normal, that leaderships are automatically principled but oppositions are usually “unprincipled combinations”.

This is particularly weird, coming from you, when with your other hat you assert that you’re an independent who hasn’t been in a group for 20 years, but nevertheless you can smell an “unprincipled combination” from a great distance.

The problem you, John Percy and the DSP leadership face, is that their pretensions to political hegemony on the left aren’t accepted by anybody except themselves and some members of their organisation. Ozleft is a relatively public discussion forum. It’s not a political family in any meaningful sense, even the Joe Hansen sense, and it’s directed at a public discussion of strategic and political issues, and in my case I view it as directed towards some kind of eventual regroupment.

You can have any views you like about allegedly unprincipled combinations, from afar, but the reality looks quite different in Australia.

I repeat my question, is a heterogeneous grouping, an attempt at regroupment, such as the Socialist Project in Canada, with clear divergences within it, one of the unprincipled combinations you can smell from a great distance?

You will have noted that more or less accidentally, a very heated political debate has erupted on the Green Left site about Cuba. I don’t particularly want to buy into that discussion because I’ve been quietly working away on a study of the history of the Cuban Revolution, which is a question very dear to my heart.

I also have the view that in general the defence of the Cuban and Venezuelan revolutions against US imperialism is the immediate and over-riding political consideration in Latin America.

For these reasons, I’m a bit cautious about rushing into a discussion of Cuba, Vietnam, etc.

Nevertheless, all the lessons of the overthrow of Stalinism underline, in my mind, the counter-revolutionary character of the general practice and idea of one-party states, from a Marxist point of view.

It may be that, in some very exceptional circumstances, a one-party state is the lesser of a number of evils if it’s associated with ongoing social revolution. Nevertheless, surely all the lessons of history indicate that from a revolutionary socialist point of view the one-party state is deeply undesirable. Idealisation of one-party states as a model for future socialist development is at the heart of the failed, counter-revolutionary phenomenon of Stalinism, which dominated the left for much of the middle part of the 20th century.

I don’t want to rush in until I’ve concluded my study and research, but I’ll just draw your attention to the way, from the heart of the DSP, there has poured out a veritable panegyric to the one-party state, to the point of it being presented as the very model of the socialist revolution.

It may be that the views being expressed by the young DSPers are just those of some enthusiasts, but I suspect they aren’t and that in general they reflect the current views of the DSP leadership.

These considerations go to the heart of rearming the revolutionary socialist project, and such a project with the aim of a one-party state seems to me to have a counter-revolutionary essence. It also gives some indication as to the kind of political model that may be in use by the DSP leadership in its internal arrangements.

It’s worth underlining the general point that on the Australian far left, other than the DSP leadership and DSP enthusiasts, enthusiasm for the one-party state is non-existent.

To summarise, Ozleft is not a cult around Bob Gould. (I’m a pretty unlikely subject for a cult anyway. The large number of people who know me laugh at the idea of such a cult. Anyway, if you don’t cop the cult story, the DSP leadership has an alternative to their cult story, that I’m some kind of marginal crank. That’s not true either.)

Ozleft is not an unprincipled combination. The underlying, unifying general principle is the idea of a united front among socialists of all persuasions. The other underlying principle is a serious public discussion on historical questions and current strategic questions. That’s the stage the far left is at in Australia.

It seems to me that your last remark is revealing. You say that my offer to you to organise a meeting of people who weren’t distinctly in the DSP orbit was an attempt to line you up against the DSP. That is more revealing about your mindset than it is about mine.

It was pretty clear that your primary point of contact was the DSP leadership and I was attempting to help you get a variety of points of view. This, in your universe, becomes trying to line you up against the DSP leadership.

This view of yours is only possible if you supremely prioritise the DSP leadership and its project. To borrow from the old Stalinist lingo, life itself on the Australian far left has produced a situation in which no one outside the DSP leadership and its close supporters prioritises the DSP leadership’s project in the way you seem to do.