Bob Gould, 2005

Democracy cast to the wind
The Socialist Alliance and Fightback conferences

Source: Ozleft, June 17, 2005
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

Green Left Weekly discussion list, June 17, 2005

The trade union Fightback conference, organised by the DSP-Socialist Alliance on the Saturday of the Queens Birthday long weekend (June 18, 2005), had a respectable attendance of about 300.

It was addressed by a number of militant trade union leaders, mainly from Victoria, but including WA maritime union leader Chris Cain and an Electrical Trades Union organiser from Queensland.

One of the more interesting things about his event was that, in different ways, all the militant trade union officials argued for the broadest possible unity in the labour movement to defeat the Howard Liberal government’s anti-union legislation.

This was put into words most sharply by Craig Johnson, the recently released militant unionist who had been imprisoned for his trade union activities. Johnson said Labor governments in the past had done bad things but the immediate strategic question was to put pressure on the Labor Party and the ACTU to stand up against the Howard government’s anti-union laws. This theme was taken up in different ways by other union officials who spoke.

The DSP leadership, specialists though they are in anti-ALP rhetoric, remained silent on this question, and it was left to Steve Jolly, a Socialist Party councillor on Yarra Council, to make a rather fiery speech in which he said the working class couldn’t trust Labor and would have to rely on its own strength to defeat the Liberals.

There are elements of truth in Johnson’s position of exerting pressure on Labor and Jolly’s position that the working class in the final analysis must rely on its own strength. Properly viewed, there’s not much conflict between the two positions.

The Fightback conference put forward a useful set of proposals for advancing the campaign against the anti-union laws.

This useful statement has one glaring omission, however. There is no mention of the legal case in the High Court against the transfer of industrial relations from the states to the commonwealth, a legal case that will be pressed by all state and territory governments and the trade union centres in each state.

The conference statement doesn’t even oppose the transfer of industrial relations powers to the commonwealth and the abolition of the state systems of industrial law.

This omission can’t be accidental. Is it the case that the DSP leadership, which would have been influential in writing the statement, doesn’t oppose the transfer, or doesn’t see a campaign of opposition to the transfer as being politically significant?

It’s easy to see how this blindness on the part of the DSP leadership might arise. The bulk of the militant trade unions that the DSP leaders hope to influence are in one state, Victoria, where the Kennett Liberal government transferred industrial relations powers to the commonwealth some years ago. The DSP has no influence, and is not likely to develop any, in the other states, where the transfer of industrial powers is a burning issue.

The legal battle in the High Court is just that: a legal battle, but it’s an extremely important one.

For a start, a High Court challenge will slow the whole process of introducing the Howard laws for at least a year. The political outcome is not entirely clear either, even in the various parliaments. The Liberals and Nationals in Queensland, SA and WA, where states rights sentiment is strong, have defied Howard so far, and opposed the transfer.

To ignore these splits in the ranks of the bourgeoisie is the height of syndicalist blindness and sectarianism on the part of the DSP leadership.

There are big historical precedents for the states rejecting the transfer of industrial powers to the commonwealth.

One aspect of the High Court challenge is that it will take the struggle against the Howard industrial laws very close to the next elections, a development that powerful sections of the ruling class are unlikely to want.

If the case were to succeed, which is a strong possibility, the operation of the federal industrial changes becomes very problematic because having 60 per cent of the workers in the country on better state awards and more friendly industrial arrangements makes the whole conservative operation very difficult to carry out.

The only other significant force in the labour movement that seems to be sceptical about the court cases opposing the transfer of powers are some sections of the ACTU leadership. On this question the DSP leadership seems to be in the same corner as those sceptical sections of the ACTU leadership.

Socialist Alliance conference

On the Sunday and the Monday (June 19-20), the Socialist Alliance conference got down to the business of tidying up matters to meet the perceived needs of the DSP leadership.

Over the past few months a four-way dispute has been going on in the Socialist Alliance between the DSP leadership, the ISO, the smaller affiliates, and the majority of the Non-Aligned Caucus (NAC), which was set up partly at the initiative of the DSP leadership a couple of years ago.

The DSP leadership has now been forced to dispense with two generations of Non-Aligned Caucus leaders because they turned out too independent of the DSP leadership. The current group of Non-Aligned leaders obviously got too big for their boots from the point of view of the DSP leadership because they took seriously the notion that their role was to be a non-aligned group and strike some balance between the DSP leadership, the ISO and the smaller affiliates.

The structure of the Socialist Alliance up to this conference, in which the NAC had great weight, was actually created at the initiative of the DSP leadership and the NAC, and adopted at the previous Alliance conference.

This structure had obviously got out of the DSP leadership’s control, and it actually lost a vote — by one vote — which obviously was more than the DSP leadership was prepared to accept.

The DSP leadership pushed for the abolition of the existing structure in favour of a new structure elected by proportional representation, in which the DSP would have outright control in combination with favoured close allies.

The DSP leadership set about getting the numbers for this Alliance conference in its usual energetic way, and when the smoke cleared the DSP and its allies had about 70 votes, the NAC had about 12, the ISO had about 12 and the other affiliates had about six. This added up to a rough breakdown of 70:30 between DSP and allies, and all the rest.

On the first day of the Socialist Alliance conference Peter Boyle and DSP General Secretary Percy made rather belligerent speeches attacking all their opponents. In Percy’s case this flowed on from the rather strange speech he made at a smallish session on regroupment at the Asia-Pacific Solidarity Conference earlier this year.

In that speech, Percy declared verbal war on what he called the “toytown internationals”, by which he appearsed to mean any organised socialist group that wasn’t the DSP.

The new DSP organisational proposals were carried by the comfortable 70:30 margin and the new Socialist Alliance national executive has an overwhelming majority for the DSP and its close allies to ensure that there won’t be any future slip-ups such as the one instance when the DSP lost a vote on that body.

On the second day Green Left Weekly was re-endorsed as effectively the newspaper of the Socialist Alliance, by the standard 70:30 margin.

The conference elected an Alliance-Green Left editorial board, which only has an advisory capacity, with an overwhelming majority of DSP members and supporters.

The new Alliance Mark III that emerges from this conference is a total political extension of the DSP, with the small affiliates, the ISO and the couple of independents who were elected to the national leadership having very little effective power in the organisation.

The DSP leadership has gone through this whole elaborate exercise in a sense to capture … themselves and their close supporters, or viewed another way, to give the DSP the appearance of an alliance.

I’m told by my informants that the atmosphere at the conference was tense and bitter, and the defeated small affiliates and the ISO are rather angry. In particular, the people in the NAC, a number of whom were previously allied with the DSP leadership, or ex-members of the DSP, are embittered and angry.

However, there’s not a great deal that any of these groups can do about it in the Alliance, and the likelihood is that most of the 30 per cent opposition in the Socialist Alliance will leave it, over time, to the hegemonic DSP.

It’s difficult to see what the DSP has gained out of the whole project. DSP membership is dropping slightly and hard copy sales of Green Left Weekly are dropping steadily.

The notion, apparently held by the DSP leadership, that it’s possible by adroit organisational manoeuvres to persuade people to sell GLW even if they don’t agree with its political content, is proving rather wistful.

In his inimitable blustering and bombastic way, Peter Boyle provides an initial account of the conference, asserting that by the end of the second day, what he termed the “one-third sectarian minority” of the conference, had further exposed themselves. The question one must as is: who to? The DSP perhaps?

The other aspect of Boyle’s account is his Aesopian use of the term sectarian. For Boyle, sectarianism has a very special meaning, much as it did for the old Stalinist party during the Third Period. Most labour movement activists might think that sectarianism consists of an isolationist attitude towards mass organisations of the working class, but in Boyle’s parallel universe a sectarian is anyone who doesn’t roll over to the political predominance of the DSP in the small circles of the far left, and the day-to-day tactics required by the DSP leadership.

The DSP leadership lives in a very curious mental world.

The future of the Socialist Alliance

The Socialist Alliance has no meaningful future as anything recognisable as an alliance. It’s a mistake, however, to underestimate the stubbornness and durability of the small DSP apparatus, despite its ultra-sectarianism towards the mass labour movement over the past decade.

The Socialist Alliance will continue as the effective public face of the DSP. The indications from the Fightback conference are that, at least publicly, the DSP is dropping its ultra-sectarian rhetoric about Laborism because of the weight bearing down on it from the group of union officials that it seeks to influence.

That retreat from sectarianism by the DSP leadership is a good thing. In the coming mobilisation against the Howard government’s industrial agenda, the broadest united front is required.

The growing support for some industrial response to Howard’s agenda, along with all the other necessary responses, is a product of agitation by both the far left and some militant unions, and that’s altogether a good thing.

There’s no doubt that the DSP will play some role in the mobilisation against Howard’s legislation, although it will be much smaller than the bombastic claims the DSP leadership makes for its influence. The united front must proceed, even including the sectarian DSP leadership.

One thing is quite clear: in the modest circles of the far left, which at most numbers maybe 2000 people in Australia, a very large number of the people who’ve tried to collaborate with the DSP in the Socialist Alliance are now very thoroughly cured of naivety towards the DSP leadership, and will treat future regroupment initiatives from that quarter with great caution.

The arguments in the Socialist Alliance leading up to the conference are contained in discussion bulletins volume 5, numbers 4, 5, 6 and 7.

Peter Boyle casts diplomacy to the wind

June 16, 2005

Peter Boyle tosses diplomacy to the wind and says what he really thinks about all the other organised groups in the Socialist Alliance.

He starts by asserting that Bob Gould advises the opposition groups in the Alliance, which while flattering is simply untrue.

A couple of the people in the Socialist Alliance who oppose the practices of Boyle’s organisation are in fact friends of mine but the notion that I advise them is pretty stupid. They’re quite capable of working things out for themselves, and everyone knows that.

Boyle’s rhetoric gives me an unpleasant sense of deja vu. It’s strikingly reminiscent of Stalin’s rhetoric in the 1930s. Pretty well anyone in the Soviet Union and the Soviet Communist Party who dissented from Stalin’s rule was dubbed a Trotskyite, and many were killed for this “crime”, when of course they weren’t Trotskyists at all. The term Trotskyist became a term of abuse to justify doing anything at all to hapless oppositionists.

Boyle’s accusation that Bob Gould is some kind of adviser to the disparate oppositionists in the Socialist Alliance has the same flavour as Stalin’s use of the term Trotskyite.

Happily, Boyle doesn’t hold state power and doesn’t have the material force to do much to his opponents, consistent with his extravagant rhetoric, and in the age of the internet it’s possible for critics of the theory and practice of Boyle’s organisation to spread their views widely, and there’s little Boyle can do to stop that.

It’s worth examining what Boyle actually says. All the groups, other than the DSP, that founded the Socialist Alliance are, in Boyle’s view, obstacles to its development and therefore must be crushed politically.

The second group of leaders of the Non Aligned Caucus, who replaced the first group who fell out with the DSP, have now also fallen out with the DSP, and they have also become non-persons in Boyle’s cosmology: hopeless sectarians (according to the DSP leadership), to be treated with contempt.

There’s no room for any sentiment here. One might have thought that Lalitha Chelliah, Raul Bassi and Louise Walker might have been given some civilised thanks for their year’s activity in the NAC and the SA leadership, but there’s no hint of that from Boyle. They’ve become critics of the DSP on some questions, and the most contemptuous tone is adopted towards them by Boyle, despite past close associations.

Why are we surprised? That kind of treatment is par for the course among the jumped-up committeepeople of the sub-Leninist, sub-Zinovievist, sub-Cannonist DSP leadership.

Once again, as I write this, a sense of deja vu intrudes. That’s exactly the kind of political behaviour that used to be practised by the now-defunct CPA leadership during the many years in which I was an articulate leftist oppositionist to that organisation.

If you fell out with the CPA you became a non-person and you had to fight very hard to maintain your political identity on the left.

The CPA leadership behaved very similarly to the way Boyle and the DSP leadership do now. They were sheer artistes, as Boyle is now, at turning black into white. Just as Boyle does now, as they were trying to do in some oppositionist or critic, they’d accuse their opponents of being sectarian towards themselves.

The significant difference, however, between the CPA and Boyle’s formation is that the CPA was deeply implanted in the labour movement and so the CPA’s anathemas could do quite a lot of damage to its critics.

Similar behaviour from the DSP leadership, the second or third time around, however, verges on farce. The DSP leadership doesn’t have anything like the political power and influence in the labour movement that the CPA had. It’s a modest-sized sect, its anathemas are irritating but they don’t do much damage except to the DSP itself.

Boyle conjures up a picture of the small affiliates, the ISO and the Non Aligned Caucus being alienated from some independent members of the Alliance. Well, there may be a few such people left, but the figures don’t suggest it.

There were 113 accredited delegates at the Socialist Alliance conference, and about 100 actual voters. If you go through the list of delegates, it’s pretty clear that the number of DSP members who were delegates was between 50 and 60, probably closer to 60. Between seven and 10 delegates were ultra-loyal DSP non-party Bolsheviks, such as former DSP members Dave Riley and Alex Miller. That doesn’t leave much room for Boyle’s rather imaginary genuine independents from whom the 30 oppositionists are said to be alienated.

Brother Boyle is pissing into the wind on this question.

When you examine the major issues on which the whole argument hinged, and which obviously drives the DSP leadership, Nick Fredman gives a pretty clear indication of what the issues actually are.

The ISO is a particular pain in the neck to the DSP leadership because it persists with its own newspaper and obstinately refuses to sell the DSP’s paper. This is the crime, also, of the other affiliates and even of the Non Aligned Caucus.

All the oppositionists are splitters and obstructive sectarians because they won’t accept the hegemony of the DSP, sell Green Left Weekly and build the Alliance in the way demanded by the DSP: making sales of GLW the central focus of Alliance activities.

When you consider the evolution of events in the Alliance, things fall into focus a bit. The small affiliates, the ISO and most of the independents signed on to what they thought was an electoral alliance, and what they possibly though was the very initial stages of a movement towards socialist regroupment after a period of very comprehensive political discussion between the various organisations, individuals and currents.

At a fairly early stage in the process, the DSP used its organisational weight and the fact that its political decisions were made in private, and the DSP acted as a cohesive political force based on those political decisions made in private to impose its will on everyone else.

The nitty-gritty of this development was the demand that all the others fall in behind the DSP paper, GLW, which essentially remained the paper of the DSP, containing the DSP leadership’s eclectic but distinctive political line.

The sheer chutzpah of the DSP leadership in demanding that adherents of other socialist groups sell GLW is rather breathtaking, really, and it’s even more breathtaking that the DSP leadership can say with a straight face that the groups that won’t sell GLW are sectarian for not doing so. The DSP leadership deserves some sort of award for political impudence and megalomania.

The problem with all this is that the distinctive political culture of the DSP leadership is, to say the least, an acquired taste. There’s no way in the world that it’s possible to persuade the members of other socialist currents with a distinct political culture and tradition of their own to roll over and essentially join the DSP by selling its newspaper.

The DSP may succeed in making the odd individual conversion from other currents, like some bloke in Brisbane from Socialist Alternative, but mass conversions from the other groups to the DSP aren’t going to happen.

The DSP leadership is driven by the fact that its political formula, combining ultraleftism towards the broad labour movement in Australia, with constantly mobilised euphoria about perceived revolutionary developments overseas, is having less and less impact.

The readership of the hard-copy GLW is falling rapidly and the membership of the DSP is stagnant. Some quick fix from persuading members of the other groups to sell GLW is a bizarre chimera.

No amount of bluster by Peter Boyle can disguise the obvious fact that the Socialist Alliance exercise has left the DSP leadership more isolated from other organised socialists than it was before it commenced the exercise.

PS. The raw ruthlessness of the DSP leadership’s push for unquestioned control of the Socialist Alliance is exemplified by what happened to the rather independent-minded left intellectual Humphrey McQueen, who has disagreed with the DSP leadership on its electoral tactics.

Dick Nichols from the DSP made a bit of a show of nominating Humphrey McQueen for the national executive. Nevertheless, the DSP clearly didn’t vote for him, as he wasn’t elected. The DSP was so preoccupied with maximising the vote for its members and reliable allies, such as Alex Miller and Dave Riley, that it couldn’t spare any votes for Humphrey McQueen, even though it was only necessary to get six or seven votes to be elected.

McQueen, who is phlegmatic, stoical kind of bloke, must be still scratching his head with amusement at this turn of events. Nominating someone, but then not voting for them is an old device in the labour movement. The DSP leadership would make good ALP number crunchers if they turned their minds to it.