Bob Gould, 2006

Labor Tribune and left discussion
An open letter to Marcus Strom, and a reply

Source: Ozleft, May 2-27, 2006
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

Dear Marcus,

Congratulations on the efforts of you and your associaties in developing a website. As you’ll see from the link we’ve put up on Ozleft, in the view of Ed Lewis and myself your site will be a useful addition to socialist discussion in Australia.

It’s an interactive site, which is a good idea. Ozleft is slightly different, more a collection of documents, and for some time we’ve considered the problems of setting up an interactive site. The fact that you’ve done so is an entirely good thing.

I would hope that your site develops as a serious focus for socialist discussion, and we will participate in that vigorously. As I’m sure you’re aware, getting sensible socialist discussion going isn’t easy. One problem evident on the Green Left Weekly site and Sydney Indymedia is that people who don’t want a serious discussion often reduce any disagreement to extremely abusive language and ludicrous point-scoring that generates more heat than light.

The other, slightly less obvious but possibly even more important, problem is the deliberate avoidance of serious debate, even of the abusive sort. A number of groups and individuals on the far left avoid participating in any debate at all, and devote all their energies to a forlorn effort to develop their own institutions.

I note that you’ve had a number of articles on the Labor Tribune site for nearly a month and no one has responded to any of them, although a number of these articles contain plenty of meat for serious discussion. This underlines the general problem of getting a debate going on major questions.

For Ozleft, the nitty gritty is historical and theoretical articles, but in an attempt to stimulate serious discussion we’ve engaged over the past couple of years in a kind of running commentary on events on the left and we’ve found, in practice, that this commentary, which people such as the DSP leaders resent and call gossip, has the practical effect of making Ozleft indispensable reading for many people, including many who don’t agree with us. Even when we don’t put up anything new for a few weeks, we still get lots of hits. That underlines that there is an audience for serious discussion, even if at the moment it’s a quiet sort of audience.

A few comments on your initial articles are called for to open a bit of a debate.

This is a secondary but not unimportant point. Why refer to people as Trotskyites? That’s the language of the gulag, the icepick and the Stalinist executioners. It’s particularly offensive when it’s baldly introduced by someone like yourself, whose whole social and cultural background is in the Stalinist movement, without any comprehensive statement about historical questions such as the Moscow Trials.

You’ve probably noted that about a year or so ago The Guardian and the Communist Party of Australia carried articles about the Moscow Trials but refused to engage in debate about the question when I challenged them.

The political problem of the historical baggage carried by the Marxist left isn’t the problem of “Trotskyites”, it’s the problem of Stalinism. Let’s have a discussion about this and related questions.

Also important is the tactical question of the Greens, a leftist small mass political organisation. Like you, I hold a Labor Party ticket, and in fact I’ve held one for 52 years and I’ve worked for Labor Party election campaigns many times. As you’re aware, I’ve polemicised over the past couple of years against the Democratic Socialist Party’s leadership’s unscientific Third Period exposure tactics concerning the Labor Party, which are based on the false theory that the Tories and Labor are equivalent capitalist parties.

Nevertheless, I find your dismissal of the Greens as what you call “middle-class” quite unscientific. This is an important discussion in Australian politics, both practically and theoretically. Assorted right-wing new-class theorists maintain a similar thesis, claiming that tertiary educated workers, who are the bulk of the Greens’ voters and activists, are not workers.

This theoretical construction is primitive and false. Viewed in a serious sociological way, the Greens’ constituency is working class, mainly from the new social layers of the working class.

The issue is further extended by the fact that the general political stance of the Greens is to the left of Labor, and this political stance is clearly the reason for the gradual increase in their vote to about 10 per cent.

Personally, I don’t join the Greens because I’m more interested, from a practical point of view, in the traditional blue collar and migrant constituency of the Labor Party. That’s where the big battalions are concentrated in the class struggle, which is the main reason why many socialists should be active in the Labor Party.

Nevertheless, the emergence of a small mass party politically to the left of Labor is no bad thing. I defend the Labor Party against Green sectarianism, and I defend the Greens against Labor Party sectarianism. In my view, the central strategic question in the labour movement is a united front between the Labor Party, the trade unions and the Greens.

These questions are particularly acute in the inner cities in Australia. I work hard for the Labor Party to hold its own electorally in competition with the Greens, but nevertheless a united front is critically important. If you concentrate your fire against the Greens as allegedly middle-class, which they aren’t anyway, you run a great risk of becoming a kind of left face for the rather lamentable traditional leadership of the Labor left, which covers for its failure to take a sharp political stand on many questions by an excess of sectarianism towards the Greens. This is sharpened by the fact that many of the more sectarian Greens are former supporters of the official Labor left who’ve fallen out with those leaders.

Marxist members of the Labor Party, in current conditions, should be addressing ourselves to rebuilding the Labor left from the bottom up, and this task hasn’t really yet been begun in the new conditions.

Viewed in that framework, the existence of the Greens as a serious force to the left of Labor is a good thing, and even if it wasn’t, it’s beyond anyone’s power to prevent this process proceeding.

You will have noticed that newly emerging right-wing ideologues addressing themselves to the left, such as David McKnight and Clive Hamilton, have taken on the task of trying to push both the Greens and Labor to the right. From this point of view, your serious article polemicising with McKnight is very useful, but I would handle some of those issues a bit differently, and we can discuss that.

You will have noticed that Clive Hamilton, the ideologue who says the masses should all tighten their belts, and who started his career as a researcher for former Labor senator Arthur Geitzelt, in his rather reactionary Quarterly Essay, takes a big swipe at the NSW left wing of the Greens, accusing them of being a bunch of “Trotskyites”.

To summarise, I see an enormously useful role for the Labor Tribune discussion site. In due course I’ll take up your sideswipe at me on the question of multiculturalism, and I’ll present more rounded material on a number of the questions I’ve raised above. I anticipate that your web moderator will have quite a task.

There are a lot of small sites, such as the Workers Liberty site, that are so parochial nobody ever reads them, but I don’t think that will be Labor Tribune’s problem. The more likely problem is that once serious discussion starts you’ll get a flood of abusive, anarchoid trolls both locally and internationally, and of course you’ll get a lot of the perennial abuse from the more Ratbag Radio hangers-on of the current DSP leadership.

I’m sure you’ll be able to thread your way through those problems, and I anticipate that Labor Tribune will develop quite rapidly as a serious and calm site of labour movement, working class and socialist discussion.

Reply to Bob Gould

Marcus Strom

Editor, Labor Tribune

Dear Bob,

Thanks for the warm welcome you extend to Labor Tribune. In these bleak times for Marxists, revolutionary socialists, communists and radicals of various stripe, voices of camaraderie are welcome.

Labor Tribune aims to contribute to a rebirth of socialist thought and practice in the labour movement. In that sense, we aim to be more than a discussion site, but also be a catalyst for serious, informed activity. What is needed is the establishment of a political centre in the labour movement. One that is able to provide resources for discussion, debate and, most importantly, practical outcomes. One that arms working-class activists with the theoretical and practical tools to achieve profound social change.

That will be a long fight. But it is a struggle to which Labor Tribune hopes to contribute.

For that we will need to strive for unity among Marxists and broad layers of working class activists; but not at any price. We will need unity around the best ideas the labour movement can collectively develop.

These ideas must not only be anti-capitalist but aim for a profound transformation of power to an active and engaged citizenship; from private property and the interests of the big end of town to the working millions and their families.

I welcome your call for serious discussion to this end. It was good to see you at our launch, you spoke concisely at your first bite. The second time, not so much. Sometimes less really is more.

The main political point you raise in your letter concerns the Green Party. You say that I dismiss this party as middle class and argue that “viewed in a serious sociological way, the Greens’ constituency is working class, mainly from the new social layers of the working class.”

On this point you are no doubt correct, but you are not arguing against what I said. I was not talking sociologically.

In my review of David McKnight’s Beyond Right and Leftsaid: “The modern Green Party is an unstable petty-bourgeois political formation; its overall direction is to seek a ‘compromise’ with capital.”

I stand by this postage-stamp analysis for what it is.

Saying the Green Party is petty-bourgeois is not intended as a sociological description of the Greens as middle class (though many of them are) or to argue that its electoral base does not includes urban workers (which it no doubt does). Rather it is to describe its political program, which while critical of the excesses of capitalism, is not based on the working-class movement and its democratic potential to supersede the capitalist system. In this sense it is a petty-bourgeois formation. And it is unstable because it will be increasingly torn between accommodation with capital and a utopian, Rousseau-like hagiography of nature as a thing to be preserved.

Therefore my description of the Green Party as “petty-bourgeois” concerns its political program, not the sociological make-up of its constituency or even its membership.

When Marxists talk about the class orientation of a political formation in any scientific sense, they talk about political essence, not the sociological make-up. Though that is not unimportant.

The current program of the ALP is without doubt thoroughly bourgeois; the current ALP leadership aims to manage capitalism. The Green Party’s program aims to ameliorate the worst excesses of capitalism without going beyond the system of capital accumulation. In the final analysis, the political essence of the Green program is not based on the active self-liberation of the working class.

In many senses, the Green program is backward looking. Small business, population controls, local organisation as opposed to global. It does not see the future as coming from the highest that capitalism has developed: a global economy, a global working-class. Rather, it tends towards the “small is beautiful” manifesto of self-sufficiency and autarky.

Standing between a thoroughly bourgeois program for the management of capital and a program of superceding capital marks it out as petty-bourgeois.

This does not imply for a minute that all Greens are middle-class dilettantes, though there are quite a few of them. It doesn’t contest the fact that the Green Party is on many social issues to the left of the ALP.

However, the Greens are divided. In NSW we see on the one hand the “deep-green” element around Ian Cohen and on the other the “watermelons” (green outside, red inside) around Lee Rhiannon and Sylvia Hale. The “watermelons” are clearly ascendant in the NSW Greens as their ticket received 71 per cent of the internal party vote that preselected the top two Green candidates for the NSW upper house next year.

The ascendancy of the “class-struggle” Greens is to be welcomed, despite the fact that many of them also indulge in childish sectarianism towards the ALP left. Their blocking with conservative councillors to lock the ALP out of council positions in Marrickville is unfortunate.

This schism within the Green Party shows their inherent instability. And we have seen similar issues of concern in Green parties in other countries: notably Germany, where the Green foreign minister supported the Nato bombing of Belgrade.

I do not know if the Green Party has reached its psephological high-water mark as many pundits are saying. But whether they have or not, the role of Marxists is to join in united activity with the best of the Greens where we can, while arguing with them for the need for a working-class program and party.

Your other point is on language, which of course has its own importance.

You say that my “whole social and cultural background” is in the Stalinist movement. This is a gross over-simplification. My background, as with everyone’s, is multi-layered. However, there is a partial truth here.

I grew up in what I call the “official communist” movement. My Jewish grandfather was a member of the British Socialist Party’s “Hands Off Russia” campaign in London after World War I. He met his wife in the Communist Party of New Zealand; he was an organiser for the Communist Party of Australia for many years, including when it was illegal. He was the secretary of the Australasian Book Society. My parents met in the CPA’s Eureka Youth League and my family was involved in the Peter Symon, Jack McPhillips, Pat Clancy led Socialist Party from the beginning. I was in the SPA’s youth league. I went on regular camping trips with Edgar and Tess Ross and their family. That is my early tradition. And I’m proud of it.

Of course my politics have moved a long way from the sclerotic tomes of Moscow’s Progress Publishers. I made my position on the Moscow trials clear at the launch of Labor Tribune.

Yes, I use the word Trotskyite as an adjective. I’m fully aware of where it came from, though I don’t know the Russian etymology of the suffixes -ite or -ist. Even so, I also use Stalinite as an adjective.

For many of the Trotskyists I have met, I am an impossibility: someone “organically” emerging from “Stalinism” who stands full square against the crimes of Stalinism and argues for the democratic and revolutionary heart of Marxist theory and practice. I (occasionally) use “Trotskyite” to remind Trotskyists of where I come from. I am proud of the radical working class tradition that the official communist movement represented in the 20th century. Yes, it was based on incorrect politics; yes it led to tragic defeat in Germany, yet it still managed to organise the best, the brightest and the most-dedicated class fighters of their generation. We cannot escape this historical truth.

Once again, thanks for the letter. You mention your 52 years in the ALP. It is unfortunate that we have no serious network of socialist activists in the ALP and labour movement after all that time. Perhaps now is the time to turn that around.

I look forward to future debates and activity that helps arm the working class in Australia with the tools they need to confront capitalism and its state.