Bob Gould, 2006

DSP lurches towards a split

Source:Green Left Weekly discussion list, July 4, 2006
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

The Australian DSP is lurching towards a major split. The recent departure of the six members of the Marxist Solidarity Network has to be seen in the context of the bitter showdown that appears to be approaching.

On May 13-14, an extended meeting of the DSP national committee was entirely dominated by conflict between the majority, led by national secretary Peter Boyle and the minority led by former national secretary John Percy.

The minority made a sharp attack on the obvious bankruptcy of the Boyle leadership’s perspectives. An interesting feature of the conflict was the articulate lead taken by a number of the younger, middle-rank leaders of the Percy grouping.

The political argument focused on whether there was a substantial political space to the left of Labor and the Greens. The Boyleites talked up the prospects of the Socialist Alliance filling such a political space, with almost stupefying detail of every case of the odd recruit made here or there on the basis of this perspective.

Political events haven’t been very kind to the Boyleites since the May meeting. The announcement by Labor leader Kim Beazley of Labor’s opposition to individual workplace contracts, and the Labor Party’s commitment to tear up the Howard government’s industrial laws, was something that the Boyle supporters had said couldn’t happen.

Despite the obvious bankruptcy of the Boyleites’ perspectives, they were rammed through the NC meeting on factional lines. Once again, the minority had the better of the argument but didn’t win the vote.

The rest of the meeting was dominated by organisational disputes. The minority was at some pains to point out that while disagreeing with the Boyleites’ perspectives they had actually carried out in a meticulous way DSP policy, even though they disagreed with it.

That didn’t prevent Boyle and his supporters making sweeping accusations of implicit obstruction because the minority abstained on a number of questions in votes in DSP branches.

A sweeping attack was made by one of the Boyle faction leaders on the only veteran trade unionist in the DSP, which I’m told by people with long experience in the DSP and its leadership was extremely unusual, if not unprecedented, in a report to the national committee on political questions.

The minority counterattacked with a fairly persuasive argument that their internal factional email list had apparently been hacked by supporters of the majority, and one significant minority member had a fascinating story about how somebody called Pumpernickel had tried to hack into his personal emails.

The most interesting development was that a major leader of the majority canvassed enforcing a new interpretation of the DSP constitution, combined with a couple of changes, to make factional activity in the DSP close to impossible. This was strenuously resisted by the minority for obvious reasons.

These leadership organisational proposals have something in common with the tightening of the US SWP’s organisational procedures in 1965, to which James P. Cannon strenuously objected in his polemic, Don’t Strangle the Party.

A kind of ultimatum was issued by Peter Boyle to the minority to stop disrupting the work of the party, and to leave the opposition forthwith. The opposition rejected this ultimatum.

Boyle’s report quoted at length from Cannon and another SWP leader, Joe Hansen, about a group in the US SWP led by Martin Abern, which Cannon regarded as a clique. In his new role of general secretary, Boyle flexed his political muscle and asserted that the DSP majority was not about to expel the minority this time, but this was the minority’s last chance. Unless they stopped disrupting the party, there would be a split, he said.

Boyle was obviously very angry and he claimed that in the opposition’s email exchanges he was referred to by some as a figure like Jack Barnes.

B tends to follow A in politics, and it’s always hard to predict what will happen in such a situation, but it’s hard to imagine how the Boyle faction can continue to make such threats against the opposition without acting on them at some point.

It’s in this context the six DSP comrades in Victoria decided to leave the DSP after the NC meeting. They clearly decided that it was better to leave before being pushed.

The imminent explosion in the DSP has lots of features in common with the way Jack Barnes took over the US SWP, and Peter Taafe organised his palace coup against Ted Grant in the Committee for a Workers’ International.

It’s also rather interesting that the recent purge of a third of the members of the international Workers Power group has been basically about a difference in perspectives between a group with an exaggerated view of the political period, and a group with a more cautious and realistic view.

For myself, I take no pleasure in the likelihood of another major split on the far left. What we actually need is a realistic semi-public political discussion of serious questions without exaggerated abuse and without organisational pretence.

I have some differences with John Percy and Doug Lorimer going back a long way, and some aspects of the perspectives of the DSP minority are a bit fanciful, but on balance the DSP minority is far more careful and realistic, and less irresponsible than the major figures in the new DSP leadership.

Maybe I’m an old Jacobite, but I’m rather impressed by the way the younger activists in the DSP minority have stood up to all the abuse and pressure to which they’ve been subjected.

I hope a split in the DSP can be avoided by some kind of agreement to differ and some kind of semi-public discussion, because the issues raised in the DSP discussion are important strategic and tactical questions. However, on the face of it, judging by the belligerence of Boyle and his carefully constructed majority, it doesn’t seem likely that a split can be avoided.

Labor Tribune on divisions in the DSP

July 4, 2006

In a relatively friendly exchange with Marcus Strom, Peter Boyle appeals to Marcus to back up the DSP leadership’s dubious figures against Bob Gould’s estimates of the size of the June 28 rallies.

Boyle is obviously a bit stung by my analysis of the June 28 trade union mobilisation, which points out that the DSP leadership carefully talks up the numbers in Geelong and Melbourne and talks them down in Blacktown.

Boyle appears not to be very good at remembering what he, or the DSP, said yesterday, or the day before. To sound scientific he says the DSP had two counters on a bridge, one of whom counted 11,000 or so at Blacktown and the other of whom counted 13,500 or so.

Firstly, did they notice that the march was so long that after a fairly long route it arrived back at at its starting point while the tail end was still leaving the park?

Secondly, the DSP’s own reporter is quoted in Green Left Weekly as saying Blacktown drew upwards of 20,000. Was that reporter out of the loop with Boyle’s alleged counters? Even the police said 20,000 and one of the bourgeois media said 50,000.

Boyle is clearly talking down the size, and given that his alleged counters’ figures contradict the DSP’s own report in GLW by about 50 per cent, its clear he's deliberately talking down the size to justify his hype, which is partly directed at battering the DSP internal opposition into the ground, politically speaking.

Further to this point, what scientific methods of counting were used to arrive at the rather fantastically high figures for Geelong on June 28 and some months ago?

What scientific methods were used to count the Melbourne protests?

A word of caution to Marcus: on the basis of getting to know Boyle a bit over the past three or four years, particularly from his intemperate and abusive writings on the net, and having watched, in a fascinated external way, him organising his palace coup in the DSP, I’ve learned to be very, very cautious with him. Boyle smiles, in the way that he no doubt smiled at John Percy for years, but it’s very unwise to be lulled into any amiability towards him, politically speaking.


Peter Boyle fools around with smoke and mirrors

July 5, 2006

DSP general secretary Boyle is fooling around with smoke and mirrors, as he often does.

Does he deny that he asserted in his report to the DSP’s national committee meeting in May that the majority wouldn’t expel the minority this time, but that unless they stopped their so-called obstruction, there would be a split?

Doesn’t this, along with the proposed constitutional tightening proposed by a fellow majority leader, add up to a threat to expel the opposition?

If this is not the case, how does Boyle explain the fact that his carefully constructed majority issued an ultimatum to the minority that they should leave the minority faction forthwith, an ultimatum that the minority faction rejected in a written statement?

All this would be relatively easily cleared up if the DSP leadership would make public Boyle’s report to the NC and the minority counter-report, and Sue B’s report and the minority counter-report, with names of people removed for security reasons. Why not follow the precedent already established by the DSP of making public the documents of both sides at the January conference? Then the objective reader could form their own opinion about whether Boyle was threatening expulsion.

The situation in the DSP is obviously a bit fluid, as indicated by the fact that there were several abstentions on the majority side in the vote on the proposed constitutional change.

Those with experience of such situations will know that an abstention in that kind of political conflict is also a kind of act of political warfare, so it may be that a certain amount of dispute has broken out in the majority camp about the narrower Boyle group’s obvious desire to engineer a split at some point.

Why not publish the main political reports with suitable excisions for security reasons so the socialist public can work out whether Boyle is giving an accurate picture of the situation in the DSP?

The impending split in the DSP. A response to Fred Feldman, Walter Lippmann and Peter Boyle

July 7, 2006

To deal with the lightweight first, Walter Lippmann, who tends to drive many people a bit crazy with incessant indiscriminate emails about Cuba that confuse the necessary diplomatic arrangements made by the Cuban government with Marxist revolutionary science, has the gall to accuse me of being a ghoul for arguing with the new DSP leadership, mainly on strategic questions in Australia.

In passing he ridicules me as a clapped-out seller of used books. My used book shop, as he describes it, has the largest range of labour movement and Marxist and socialist literature in Australia by a country mile, and has performed a useful political role for about 40 years.

Lippmann is a tunnel-visioned obsessive, in my opinion, and his monomania is constantly displayed on Marxmail and its spin-off the discussion list on the US SWP, as well as the Green Left list.

As a long-standing supporter of the Cuban revolution, I don’t need to know nearly as much about it as Walter Lippmann seems to think is necessary, and I find teacup reading about, and constant scapegoating of, the US SWP on international questions problematic, tedious, often personally abusive and sometimes almost incomprehensible.

By way of contrast with all that, Ozleft’s treatment of developments on the Australian far left, and our polemical exchanges with the DSP, are of an altogether different character.

Our debates with the DSP leadership are generally about concrete day-to-day questions of political and industrial struggle in Australia. The historical material on Ozleft, which is of interest in its own right, often sheds light on current questions facing socialists.

Lippmann’s dopey comment suggests that he hasn’t noticed other aspects of the content of Ozleft and my own journalism, which contains a lot of history and cultural criticism of Australian society. Possibly that material is of little interest to Lippmann because of his tunnel vision. I suggest, for instance, that he has a good look at my two lengthy articles on Leninism to get some idea of where I’m coming from.

Fred Feldman’s post on Green Left and Marxmail is of an altogether more serious character than Lippmann’s personal abuse of Bob Gould. While Feldman unloads me in a way that he clearly considers useful tactically on the Green Left list, nevertheless he reinforces at length my basic point about the discussion in the DSP and insists quite properly that it’s incumbent on the DSP leadership to ensure publication of material from the opposition that would give the socialist public some idea of the issues raised in the internal DSP discussion.

On one point Feldman is just wrong. I don’t favour a split in the DSP. I just point to the fact that is obvious from talking to people who are well informed, and from reading material that comes my way, that a split is imminent.

The far left in Australia needs further organisational splits like the proverbial hole in the head, but the only alternative to such splits is firstly the relaxation, rather than strengthening, of Cannonist norms in Cannonist organisations, to the point at which some sort of serious public discussion of points in dispute in those organisations can take place.

For the past five or six years, myself and the people who produce Ozleft have been preoccupied with two or three themes. One is the importance of the united front in the labour movement, another is the need for serious public discussion of strategic and tactical questions that are in dispute, and the third is projecting the idea of an eventual socialist regroupment on the basis of such a serious public discussion.

We are not naive about these questions, but we already have gone a considerable distance towards getting a large audience, by Australian standards, for these themes.

Differences between Australia and the United States

The three themes that I mention flow from the Australian political situation. Australia has a mass labour movement with five recognisable constituent elements: the Labor Party and the Greens at the political level, the trade union movement, a variety of social movements and the far left, which relative to the others, and even taken as a whole, is much smaller than the other four.

The labour movement as a whole opposed the imperialist intervention in Iraq, unlike for instance the British labour movement and most of the trade unions in the US.

The labour movement as a whole is currently fighting vigourously against the Howard government’s attempts to smash the trade unions and dismantle the Labor Party. This mass fightback against the Tory government is reasonably effective and has considerable mass resonance, but it is taking place defensively in a difficult situation in a relatively affluent country.

This set of circumstances makes arguments about strategy and tactics, particularly on the far left, of considerable importance. From that flows the polemical intensity of Ozleft’s arguments, particularly with the Boyleite adventurers who currently run the DSP.

The crisis in the DSP

Australia is a big country geographically, but it’s fairly homogeneous socially and culturally, and it is massively urbanised. The far left, the labour movement and the Greens, etc, all exist in every state, most major cities, and even some smaller centres.

In this day and age it’s possible to conduct a political discussion in a country like Australia on the web. Taking advantage of this, Ozleft has taken up most of the important themes involved in debates in the labour movement, and particularly at the moment the debate in the DSP.

Semi-accidentally, we’ve become the major source of information on developments on the far left, and currently in the DSP. In addition, all the small group of people who produce Ozleft have personal and social connections, sometimes friendly and sometimes hostile, with a large number of people on the far left, and particularly those involved in the current dispute in the DSP.

I, and my collaborators, take no pleasure at all in the personal acrimony that has erupted in the DSP and the imminence of a split. We’ve known many of the participants for a very long time. We’re old acquaintances, some of us even old collaborators and friends at one time, who’ve become current opponents, but we all know each other reasonably well and it’s worth saying that the incredibly visceral personal animosities that are often expressed on Marxmail aren’t replicated in Australia in quite the same vicious way. Most of us in these parts know each other a bit too well, and the socialist movement is too small, for us to indulge for too long the Marxmail kind of luxury of unbridled abuse of each other.

In my case, I have good reason to be critical of John Percy’s story about the history of the DSP and the initial split in which he and I were involved 30-odd years ago. I’ve written a fair bit about that, and in due course I’ll write more. But old disputes aren’t the major factor in politics, although they may inform us in our current activities.

Studying the current upheaval in the DSP, I’ve come to the conclusion, which is shared by my associates, that while there are historical defects and current weaknesses in the political orientation of the Percy minority, they’re head and shoulders politically above Boyle and the others who carried out the palace coup in the DSP.

In particular, the second ranks of the Percy minority are more careful, more interested in basic Marxism, and in the context of being an opposition in a Cannonist group, pretty courageous. Reluctantly though we might recognise it at Ozleft, this must have something to do with the political training they’ve had from Doug Lorimer and John Percy.

By way of contrast, it seems to me that Boyle and many of his close associates are rhetorical adventurers who will say or do almost anything to achieve their short-term organisational objectives. This, of course, does not apply to all those in Boyle’s circle, some of whom are old hands who desperately hang on to the idea that, despite all the evidence that is now in, the almost defunct and moribund Socialist Alliance project may in some way get the DSP out of its partly self-imposed isolation.

These supporters of the Boyle faction seem to be prepared to go along with Boyle’s rhetoric in the hope that somehow this rhetoric will help the DSP to emerge as a mass force.

There are also some capable younger people on the Boyle side and some of them seem to be rapidly developing reservations about the Boyle leadership’s moves to tighten up the DSP organisationally along the lines of the US SWP’s 1965 organisational resolution.

These reservations are demonstrated by some abstentions on the key organisational resolution at the May national committee meeting, and those with experience in such organisations will know that in a heated factional situation even an abstention is a courageous act.

As Feldman correctly points out, the ball is well and truly in the court of the Boyle leadership. Boyle and his supporters can easily clear up the question as to who is really pushing for a split in the DSP and provide the socialist public with substantial political education by publishing six documents: the national committee report and counter-report on the Australian political situation (SB vs MC), the report and counter-report on the DSP (Peter Boyle vs John Percy), and the report and counter-report on the organisational proposals (DH vs DL). These three exchanges outline most of the political questions in dispute.

The latest proposal by People Many for publication of some kind of bowdlerised version of the DSP’s position on a number of questions is not an adequate substitute for publishing the substantial exchanges.

A note on sources and internal discussion. I’m inclined to disagree with Marcus Strom, who elevates an idealistic schema of total public discussion as the central question in the current dispute in the DSP. I favour reasonably open discussion towards the political end of possible regroupment in the long term, but Cannonist norms of organisation didn’t fall from the sky and it’s idealism to expect people trained in that school to make a big leap into open discussion in one fell swoop.

In addition to this, totally open discussion of some matters is neither desirable nor normal practice anywhere in the labour movement at any level. Some things are necessarily private. The essential political debates should be public, but serious socialists have a duty of care even towards sometimes reckless opponents on the left. The DSP internal material circulates fairly widely in Australia, and I’m unsure as to where it all comes from. Some of it arrives unannounced and unexplained.

I’m sometimes in a similar situation to Woodward and Bernstein at the start of the Watergate affair. I’m not entirely sure where some of my information comes from and what purposes or interests are involved in some anonymous leaks. The latest material I have seen could have come from the Boyle or Percy camps or someone who is not in either camp.

Some things I have seen, in my considered opinion, should not have been committed to paper at all, and should be discussed privately, which is where a certain duty of care comes in. Marcus Strom’s schema about total public disclosure wouldn’t work in this kind of situation.

Boyle and the current leadership of the DSP could take the heat out of a lot of their problems by publishing the six documents I’ve mentioned above, with the necessary omission of full names, etc.