Bob Gould, 2005

Stalinism on the agenda at DSP education conference

Source: Ozleft, January 7, 2005
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

The DSP is holding its traditional New Year conference a bit later than usual, from January 8-12, and it’s a bit shorter than usual.

There has been a bit of a lunatic flurry about this conference on the sometimes rather bizarre Sydney Indymedia. One person who claims to be a DSP insider carries on at great length about the seating arrangements for the conference, but this comment is pretty eccentric, as the alleged DSP insider is describing what happens at a DSP decision-making conference, not an educational event, which this one seems to be.

The DSP leadership’s posting on Indymedia dubs this conference “Marxism”, which is cocking their snook at bit at their ostensible Socialist Alliance partners, the ISO, who also call their annual educational events Marxism.

The other feature of this conference is that it’s a strictly closed event, unlike previous DSP education conferences. Only selected outsiders will be allowed to attend, and the DSP’s ostensible allies in other groups in the Socialist Alliance, on the face of it, are particularly excluded.

The agenda for the conference, published on Sydney Indymedia, gives some hint as to why this event is so deliberately closed, because in part it’s an intensive indoctrination session on issues on which other Alliance affiliates have different points of view, and obviously the presence of people with different points of view tends to puncture the intense unanimity desired by the DSP leadership around its political line.

For a start, the actual political configuration of the conference, rather than the fictional configuration described by the ostensible DSP insider on Sydney Indymedia, is informative.

The site for this event has several small lecture venues and one large one, which is designated as WMR. There are several keynote sessions each day, and other sessions with between five and eight events running concurrently. In the concurrent sessions, the lecture that is regarded as most important, and the one that most participants will be encouraged to attend, is the one in WMR.

There are five major themes at this conference. The ostensible keynote theoretical theme is the 100th anniversary of the 1905 revolution in Russia, with Doug Lorimer giving the keynote talk on Monday in WMR. Lorimer’s account of the lessons of 1905 is quite predictable: an extensive repetition of the basic DSP mantra about the Leninist party — the DSP version put forward in all places, for all seasons and for all times, in a relentlessly simplistic way.

Lorimer’s main lesson will be that the authoritarian model of so-called Leninism practised by the DSP is the only authentic model and he will repeat this in different ways, with rather long quotes, for about an hour.

DSP big meetings of this sort are not designed for serious discussion from the floor, so it’s unlikely that Lorimer’s story will be challenged much in that forum.

I would put forward an alternative account of the key lessons of 1905. The first lesson is the emergence of the soviets as an expression of proletarian power. The main personality associated with the emergence of the soviets was Trotsky, with Parvus behind him in the background, both of them busily working away at elaborating the theory of permanent revolution — the Trotsky-Parvus version, not the latter-day eclectic and opportunist DSP alternative to that theory.

The second major feature of 1905 and the two or three years of relatively open revolutionary activity that immediately followed it in Russia, was the conflict in the Bolshevik party between Lenin and the “committee men”, in the first instance over opening up the party to the revolutionary mass movement. The committee men opposed that. As well, there was the conflict between Lenin and most of the Bolshevik faction over taking advantage of the legal openings for revolutionary activity presented by the inauguration of an elected Duma, and the elections for that body.

At the two semi-legal big RSDLP conferences conducted in Stockholm and London, Lenin even went so far as to break Bolshevik faction discipline to vote with the Mensheviks against most of the Bolshevik delegates in favour of participation in the Duma.

It’s also worth noting the simple physical fact that the main conferences of revolutionaries held in Russia in 1905-07 were united RSDLP conferences in which the Bolsheviks, Mensheviks and other factions participated.

This account of the real sequence of events is unlikely to come from Lorimer’s hour-long speech on 1905 in WMR, but a lot of it is available in my article, Reclaim Lenin from “Leninists” and “Leninism”, particularly some lengthy quotes from Bertram D. Wolfe’s Three Who Made a Revolution.

On the agenda of the conference devoted to overseas events, on the face of it none of the 75 sessions is on the Iraq war, which is a curious omission, the meaning of which isn’t entirely clear to me.

Another omission is any lecture on the current social conflicts in China, or on the Chinese revolution at all. Also absent is any lecture on the Australian student movement, a big omission considering that over many years the DSP has recruited extensively among students. Now, however, its presence among students is substantially diminished. At this conference the three or four DSP student activists who are speaking will take on topics quite unrelated to the student movement.

Another feature of the conference is that no national fraction meetings are billed for the lunch breaks, other than the national finance fraction. This seems to suggest that the financial crisis of the DSP is considered of overwhelming importance compared with other spheres of activity.

The dominant international theme is a series of keynote lectures on events in Latin America. There are no less than seven lectures on Cuba and Venezuela, four of them in WMR.

The cadres of the DSP, by the end of this intense education, will be exceedingly familiar with the DSP line on Latin America, even if their tools for judging the truth or otherwise of the accounts given to them are otherwise rather limited.

Another apparent aim of this conference is to indoctrinate the DSP membership about the political crimes of what the DSP likes to call “sectarian Trotskyism”. There are no less than eight lectures in which anti-Trotskyist lessons will be drawn in different ways.

One of them is called “The Trotskyist Mystification”, another is “The Post-war Experiences of Trotskyism and the Third World Revolutionary Leaderships”, by Jorge Jorquera, and another is “The Bolshevik Revolution: The Test of Practice”.

Nick Everitt is billed to speak on the lessons of the Vietnamese revolution, which will obviously include the obligatory denunciation of the Vietnamese Trotskyists, and so it goes.

The only non-DSP outside group giving a paper at this conference is the German Party of Democratic Socialism, the formerly Stalinist ruling party in East Germany, now a fairly moderate Social Democratic formation. The lecture is billed: “German Politics and the Perspectives of the PDS”, and will be presented by a prominent member of the PDS.

The strictures about Social Democracy and the Greens, applied rigorously by the DSP in Australia, don’t seem to apply with anything like the same rigour to the formerly Stalinist PDS.

One might expect that out of 75 lectures, some overview of the Stalinist aberration in the 20th century, and its many aspects. But there’s only one shy little lecture by Renfrey Clarke on Stalinism, and it’s hard to assess what Renfrey will say on the topic in the context of this broadly anti-Trotskyist atmosphere in the very regimented DSP.

The general repudiation of Trotskyist politics at this conference applies mainly to the political content of the long historical struggle of the Trotskyists against Stalinism in the 20th century. The baby of the battle against Stalinism is thrown out, but the bathwater of Cannon’s over-centralised ideas of party structure is retained with their full force, and several lectures will sketch out the Cannonist style of party in its full rigour as the model to follow.

The conference is obviously intended to stiffen the DSP ranks against all the corruptions in the external world, and to steel them as far as possible against any too-independent intervention in substantial mass movements outside the immediate grip of the DSP leadership.

There’s a session on the contradictions of the Greens to harden the members against the appeal of that formation.

There’s a curious session on the lessons of the Spanish revolution, by Rachel, the author of a rather extraordinary personal blog, and this lecture will concentrate on the mistakes of the anarchists in Spain, which is standing the history of the Spanish revolution on its head. Any lecture about the Spanish revolution should start with a thorough discussion of the crimes of Stalinism in Spain, but Rachel’s lecture is unlikely to do that, I’ll bet.

Discussion of the labour and workers movements is all from the curious, eclectic, non-empirical and unscientific standpoint adopted by the DSP leadership. It’s all directed at inculcating in DSP members the overwhelming necessity of building their small party at the expense of any serious implantation and oppositional activity in the existing workers movement.

There’s one other shy little lecture that will be extremely significant, given by Russell Pickering, dubbed “Teamster Politics and Party Building”. Blind Freddy can see that Pickering’s lesson will be that Farrell Dobbs ultimately chose to go off and build the party rather than waste his time any further on the proletarian mass movement in the Teamsters. This trope, in my opinion, is putting Dobbs’s very useful and courageous life to the use of drawing a very narrow, sectarian lesson.

As against this, Sam Wainwright will talk about the life of the Communist trade unionist in WA, Paddy Troy. That’s one lecture I’d love to be at, just to hear how Sam handles Troy’s lifelong and systematic professional socialist revolutionary trade union activity, a large part of it as a full-time union official. It would also be interesting to see how Sam handles Paddy Troy’s conversion, towards the end of his life, to the view that it was better for revolutionary socialists to enter the Labor Party as a faction rather than try to maintain the Communist Party. I wonder if Sam will even mention that.

The lectures on the workers movement are underpinned by the DSP’s eclectic and incoherent theory of the aristocracy of labour. This will be presented in a tortuous way to try to prove that there was no significant Marxian socialist tradition in Australia until the DSP came along, tactically speaking, and that the political Labor Party was a direct product of the aristocracy of labour (which is contradicted by all the evidence). This angle is used as an ideological buttress, a convoluted “proof”, that the origins of Laborism were mainly bad.

The yawning contradiction of this DSP leadership view is that the sites and locations of mass class struggles, up to and including today, in Australia, have often been the very unions that, on this artificial reconstruction, can be called an aristocracy of labour. I’ve written extensively on this elsewhere, so I won’t burden the reader with too much more on that, except to say that the DSP leadership’s jerrybuilt ideological construction on this question is meant to harden the view among DSP members that the only real political life in the workers movement is in their sect.

On day-to-day political tasks the keynote speeches, mostly taking place in WMR, are directed at hardening the DSP cadres in the view that the rather stillborn Socialist Alliance project still has legs, despite all evidence to the contrary.

These keynote speeches on the Socialist Alliance will all involve lengthy verbal assaults on the other Alliance affiliates for not rolling over politically to the DSP’s version of the Alliance project. All the problems of the Socialist Alliance will be blamed on the orneriness of the other affiliates.

There’s a curious lecture on the US campaign against the war in Vietnam. One would have thought that a history of the forthright and boisterous Australian struggle against the Vietnam war might have been appropriate, but such a lecture would necessarily have involved trying to come to terms with the nature of that movement, the role of substantial organisations such as the Labor Party, the Communist Party, the Maoists and the existing Trotskyists, and the role of personalities as diverse as Arthur Calwell, Jim Cairns, Albert Langer and myself, rather than the disembodied entity of the pre-DSP Resistance current, about which John Percy lectures awkwardly in his rather self-serving historical articles.

It might also have been useful to have Mike Karadjis present a serious overview of problems and contradictions in contemporary Vietnam, but that’s definitely not on the agenda at this conference. Instead there’s a celebratory anniversary speech by a Vietnamese diplomat, Nick Everitt’s inevitable attack on Trotskyism, and the US SWP’s version of the history of the Vietnam war, and the movement against that war.

This education conference will register the further evolution of the DSP leadership in the direction of a kind of latter-day Stalinism, and its attempt to harden up the DSP membership against Trotskyism, Social Democracy, the Greens and any external force that might distract DSP members from the perceived primary task of building their small sect in the narrowest possible way.

Someone reading this critique of the coming DSP conference might conclude from the foregoing that I regard such conferences as a bad thing. That is not my view. The DSP leadership, in its own way, with all its eclectic political baggage, makes a serious effort at these conferences to train a new generation of Marxists in socialist politics, and the problem of how to conduct serious socialist educational events is indeed very important.

Many of the lectures that I haven’t commented on appear to be serious attempts at socialist education, and there’s no magic formula for socialist education, as we’ve all discovered.

I have attended a number of past DSP events such as this one and found them useful and informative despite my serious political differences with the DSP leadership. What motivates me to be so sharply critical in this article and other recent articles, such as the ones about North Korea, is that that the gradually developing semi-Stalinist political culture embodied in the things that I’m criticising is a completely mad political standpoint from which to try to educate socialists for the 21st century.

I seem to live in a very different world to the DSP leadership. They accuse all other revolutionary socialist groups, and people like myself, of Stalinophobia without any evidence at all other than their own rewritings of history. Over the past few years, since the political collapse of Stalinism and the opening of the archives of the Stalinist countries, I’ve been almost obsessed by a study of new material coming out of the archives that deepens our knowledge of the political monstrosity that was Stalinism, and the political errors that made it possible.

An educated worldwide public has access to this material and a real picture of what Stalinism was is now a concrete part of the education of anyone who studies history, and it’s from people who study history that potential recruits to the socialist movement often come.

It seems to me both ahistorical and politically self-defeating to try to recreate a tiny counterculture in the socialist movement shot through with special pleading myths about the alleged good features of Stalinism.

This exercise might be useful for cohering the members of a small sect, but it’s no use at all for creating a movement that can intervene and construct a serious socialist current in the broader society outside the sect. This is the main reason why I continue to conduct my political polemic with the DSP leadership. I believe this debate is useful to the political education of the youth.