Bob Gould, 2004

The timeless history of Jim McIlroy
The past as party line

Source: Ozleft, December 1, 2004
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

The genial Jim McIlroy gives the obligatory historical lecture at DSP Christmas-New Year gatherings. This pamphlet is the lecture he gave last year. I don’t like being too hard on McIlroy, as he’s a pleasant enough bloke, unlike some others in the DSP leadership, but his historical lectures and pamphlets have become doggedly and predictably routine. They contain only a certain amount of history and the real point of these historical pamphlets is to reassert DSP dogma about the Labor Party.

In this pamphlet, the DSP dogma comes at the end, in 24 points, most of which don’t depend at all on the limited amount of historical material in the pamphlet.

This pamphlet works over essentially the same material as McIlroy’s previous Christmas lecture, Australia’s First Socialists. Like all current DSP history lectures, the whole history of the Australian workers movement is reduced to a simple, timeless proposition about the need to build the revolutionary party in all places and at all times. In reality, the historical material is entirely secondary, and is superfluous to the DSP’s timeless theme about Laborism.

McIlroy and DSP Australian labour movement historiography have a lot in common these days with Stuart McIntyre’s right-wing Social Democratic historiography. The McIlroy-DSP school share with McIntyre a total neglect of all the instances of robust upsurges and centrism that from time to time have reasserted or revived the Labor Party’s influence among the working class and the masses.

McIlroy’s version is becoming farcical in this respect. This pamphlet’s narrative, like Australia’s First Socialists, doesn’t get much further than 1914. Rather than reworking the same story about the very early years, it would be interesting for the DSP and McIlroy to give some account of the turbulent upheavals that took place subsequent to 1914.

McIlroy’s first pamphlet, The Red North, ostensibly about the Communist Party in north Queensland had the same defect, and my response to that was to give comprehensive description and overview of the whole labour movement in Queensland — its very low lows and its reasonably high highs, because the evolution of the labour movement in Queensland is a useful experimental model for the country as a whole.

The reason the DSP historigraphy doesn’t go further than the early period is obvious. Rather than being the outright, simple tool of the ruling class as the DSP’s post-1984 schema would have it, the real history of the labour movement contains the sharpest contradictions and a number of major splits, in which the impulse from the base for a more radical labour movement predominated.

McIlroy’s historical approach is evolving into stark intellectual dishonesty. This is particularly bizarre considering that there are several narratives of the evolution of the Australian labour movement, expressed at the mass political level in the ALP.

A useful and comprehensive summary account of these developments is Peter Conrick’s little booklet, a compilation of articles from the early editions of Direct Action, which has long been out of print but which is available on Ozleft and has attracted a steady stream of visits, which suggests there is very considerable interest in labour movement history that takes account of the movement’s contradictions.

If McIlroy and the modern DSP were intellectually serious, but heavily pressed for time, as they claim, perhaps they could use Conrick’s material about the subsequent period, rather than ignoring it (as Stuart McIntyre largely does, in his Social Democratic way).

Despite Labor Prime Minister Andrew Fisher’s reactionary statement in 1914 about supporting Britain’s imperialist war “to the last man and the last shilling”, the whole labour movement, including the ALP, revolted against conscription in 1916-17 and expelled the first generation of reactionary Labor leaders that shifted to the right to support conscription.

Those events don’t fit very well with the DSP’s ahistorical schema that the mass political labour movement is some kind of conspiratorial outfit acting at all times as the second party of capitalism.

In contradistinction to the DSP’s simple-minded conspiracy view of the Labor Party as a deliberate and conscious second party of capitalism, the real historical narrative from 1915 on is quite different. It’s a story of a contradictory mass workers’ organisation in constant crisis because of the conflict between the ranks and the leadership, and for other reasons.

Simple second parties of capitalism are unlikely to split over an issue such as conscription.

The conscription split led directly to the adoption of the socialist objective and to a general radicalisation of the labour movement nationwide for the next 25 years.

There were many mistakes and political crises in the labour movement in the depression of the 1930s, and certainly a revolutionary socialist leadership was lacking. The Communist Party was saddled with the crackpot Third Period schema, not unlike the DSP’s current political line, and the centrist populism of NSW Labor premier Jack Lang had a lot of limitations.

Nevertheless, the Labor Party as a whole expelled Joseph Lyons, who became the Conservative prime minister at the start of the Great Depression, E.J. Hogan the Labor premier of Victoria, and Labor Premier Lionel Hill in South Australia.

In the 1930s, the Australian ruling class obviously didn’t view the Labor Party, and particularly the Lang forces, as a stable second party of capitalism. All the various wings and sub-factions of the ruling class did all they could to destroy the Labor Party in the 1930s.

Later on, it’s hard to see the move of Prime Minister Ben Chifley to nationalise the banks just after World War II as an action emanating from a stable second party of capitalism.

Again, it’s hard to view the action of the Labor leader Herbert Vere Evatt of expelling the Catholic Action (Grouper) extreme right of the party, as that of a leader of a stable second party of capitalism.

Again, it’s hard to see the actions of the Labor leader Arthur Calwell in opposing Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and lending his ALP political leadership to the development of a popular antiwar movement, as the work of the leader of a stable second party of capitalism.

Even in the recent election campaign, it’s hard to see Mark Latham’s industrial policies, and his pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq, as emanating from a stable second party of capitalism.

As we speak, the Murdoch newspapers are engaged in a tremendous agitation to get rid of Latham, because they’re obviously convinced that his populist, Bonapartist behaviour cuts across their interests. Murdoch would certainly like to see Labor as a stable second party of capitalism, but the behaviour of the Murdoch press indicates that they don’t believe that’s what it is.

Jim McIlroy’s pamphlet is intellectually quite dishonest, because he only discusses the early years of the party, and then at the end he attaches his 24 points about Laborism, including the proposition that the old Trotskyists were wrong in their view that Labor was a mass workers’ party with a reactionary leadership.

McIlroy just baldly asserts these 24 points without any serious attempt to locate them in the history of the Labor Party after about 1915, and before the Hawke-Keating era of the 1980s and early 1990s.

McIlroy twists and distorts Lenin, parroting Doug Lorimer, trying to make the facts fit the second party of capitalism schema. You can only do this intellectually shoddy job if you ignore Left Wing Communism and Trotsky’s interventions, backed by Lenin, on the united front and tactics at the Fourth Congress of the Comintern.

Clearly Lenin and Trotsky viewed the Social Democratic parties, particularly the British and Australian labour parties, as bureaucracies in the labour movement to be fought by the tactic of the united front and other, and more direct tactics.

Several of the first four congresses of the Comintern spent quite a bit of time and effort elaborating tactics towards the mass Social Democratic parties for the small Communist forces.

While Lenin located the shift to the right of many Social Democratic parties in Europe in the development of a labour aristocracy, he never elaborated a schema making them “second parties of capitalism”, in which it was illegitimate for socialists to engage in activity.

Rather, Lenin and Trotsky elaborated the tactic of the united front, and recommended that the Marxists in the small Communist parties in English-speaking countries should campaign for affiliation to the labour parties and try to sharpen the conflict within them between the rank and file and the conservative leaderships.

The Communist parties in England and Australia engaged in fraction work in the labour parties, clearly under the guidance of the Comintern.

The Trotskyists in English-speaking countries who developed the entry tactic in labour parties from the 1930s to the 1950s were not doing something un-Leninist, as McIlroy, Lorimer and the DSP would have it. They were actually acting in the spirit of the tactics adopted at the first four congresses of the Comintern.

The schema about the Labor Party being the totally entrenched second party of capitalism is a unique Australian dogma invented by the DSP at the initiative of Jim Percy and transmitted through his red professors in 1985.

This switch to a new theoretical formulation was driven by a conjunctural opportunity perceived by the late Jim Percy, in the growth of the Nuclear Disarmament Party. This view suited the needs of the DSP as a self-important independent sect, and that has led to this formulation being frozen in aspic ever since.

It’s also worth remembering that at roughly the same time the DSP called for directing preferences to the Democrats over Labor on the grounds that there was movement in the Democrats and they were perceived to be to the left of Labor. In making that decision the DSP gave more weight to the Democrats’ overt public political positions, and to Jim Percy’s perception of the Democrats’ trajectory of movement, than to the working class trade union base of the Labor Party.

In pursuing this shibboleth the DSP leadership has taken up with great gusto Lenin’s half-developed and never entirely clarified views on the aristocracy of labour in advanced capitalist countries. McIlroy and the DSP use this conception of Lenin in a most peculiar way.

At one point in their analysis, they imply (or Peter Boyle implies, to be more specific) that the whole of the working class in the advanced capitalist countries forms part of the labour aristocracy because of the imperialist role of the advanced capitalist countries in relation to the Third World.

A bit of sleight of hand is then used to associate the origins of Labor with this view of the whole working class as the aristocracy of labour in Australia.

The working out of this sleight of hand becomes a bit complicated, and almost incoherent, for the DSP. Of late the DSP has latched on to some early formulations of Humphrey McQueen, which imply that there was some kind of large socialist trade union and working class movement in contradistinction to the Laborist trade union and working class movement in the early years.

This is a kind of myth of the golden past and any careful reading of the historical works of Ian Turner, Paul Bongiorno and others actually demonstrate the way all of the strands of the early labour movement were intertwined. The distinctions between the various working class and trade union movements were never as clear as McQueen’s early formulation suggested. In fact McQueen later dropped this version of his early work, only to have it taken up in recent times by the DSP, which is a kind of intellectual curiosity.

The DSP currently tries to give some intellectual reinforcement to its strange view of Laborism by making extensive rhetorical use of the aristocracy of labour idea as the source of Laborism.

The difficulty with that is obvious. The trade union militant current to which the DSP points as a kind of wave of the future for the working class movement, located mainly in Victoria, is made up largely of trade unions that, according to the DSP schema, are located in the aristocracy of labour. Even worse, the militant unions in Victoria are all solidly entrenched in the Labor Party.

One of the paradoxes from the point of view of the DSP is that the unions that have fought hard in defence of Craig Johnson, for instance, are blue collar unions that are affiliated to the Labor Party and well entrenched in it. The unions in Victoria that don’t take up the call to defend Craig Johnson include the teachers, public servants, etc, which are traditionally not so deeply involved in Labor Party politics. That’s a rather brutal paradox for the DSP.

All four prominent trade union leaders who spoke at the recent rally in defence of Craig Johnson: Michele O’Neil of the textile union, Martin Kingham of the CFMEU, Steve Dargavel of Workers First in the AMWU and Kevin Bracken of the maritime union are all prominent figures in the Victorian Labor Party left.

The paradox of the DSP’s settled and persistent sectarianism towards Labor, which his given a kind of intellectual gloss by McIlroy’s 24 points, is how similar it is to the Third Period of Australian Stalinism, which actually happened twice, between 1928 and 1933 and between 1948 and 1951.

The CPA recovered from the Third Period disease rather rapidly in historical terms, although it committed many other bizarre political errors dictated by the politics of high Stalinism at other times.

Nevertheless, for most of its political life, the CPA tried to come to terms with, and find strategic hinges help it deal with the obvious fact of Australian working class political life: the grip of Laborism on the masses.

The early Australian Trotskyists, driven in part by the realism dictated by their small numbers, tried to elaborate tactics to give themselves an audience in the labour movement and the working class.

The DSP’s 20-year Third Period strategy since 1984 is some kind of record in the Australian left, and a very negative one. In the time since it adopted its new formulation and the belligerent anti-Labor hostility and rhetoric that flows from it, a number of the DSP’s organisational rivals, such as the CPA and the Socialist Labour League, have disappeared. A new mass centrist party, the Greens, that gets 7-10 per cent of the vote to the left of Labor has emerged in this period, Laborism’s hegemony over the working class and the Labor-trade union continuum is still intact, but the DSP is now weaker than it was in 1984, when it first adopted this intellectual novelty and the sectarian tactics that flow from it.

The big strategic task facing Marxists (who are a tiny group) is still the one that has confronted them for many years: how to elaborate tactics that will get socialists an audience in society at large. To get such an audience, one of the major questions is how to combine political independence with a strategic orientation towards the supporters and adherents of the Labor-trade union continuum and the small mass party to the left of Labor, the Greens.

A belligerent, sectarian Third Period posture presenting, in the short term, the tiny forces of the Marxists as some global alternative force to Labor and the Greens is a strategic absurdity in current conditions.

See also The DSP book of parables Australia’s First Socialists: A critical review