Bob Gould, 2007
Source: Leftwrites, January 21, 2007
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter
In the first week in January the DSP held a four-day summer school in a college at Sydney University. The venue was not widely advertised. I turned up with a certain amount of trepidation in light of the recent unpleasant incident on the Green Left discussion list when an unreconstructed Stalinist accused me of being an agent provocateur, and there was no adequate response from the people running the Green Left list.
In the event, the atmosphere at the summer school was quite civil. There is an account of the gathering in Green Left Weekly by Dave Holmes, the king of bland and spin, who is the old DSP leader whose support shores up the current leadership of the DSP around Peter Boyle.
According to Holmes, the papers presented at the summer school will be available on the web soon. Numbers were down on past live-in DSP summer schools, but paradoxically the change of venue, the vagaries of Sydney weather and the more human scale made for a more civilised environment for serious political discussion.
This year has turned out to be the subtropical coolish, wet Sydney summer that alternates with the super-hot, dry ones. The venue suited me because I just had to trot down the hill to the campus, so I attended about half of the event. I might have attended more, but muggy, wet holiday periods are a peak business time in my bookshop.
The political disagreements between the two groups in the DSP were clearly evident to any educated eye. The leaders of both groups tended to bond among themselves and with their own supporters, although there was a bit of interchange among the ranks. The interplay between the leaders of the two groups was obviously very tense.
The first business was a lengthy talk on Marxism by Peter Boyle, which turned out to be a reasonable exposition of a difficult topic, and I was relieved that the 90-minute presentations that used to be a feature of big DSP events had been scaled down to about 45 minutes. Part of Boyle’s address was a fairly careful engagement with, and criticism of, the views put forward by Joaquin Bustello on Marxmail, and Stan Goff elsewhere, ditching Marxism.
Boyle generally defended the notion of the existence of a working class “for itself”, and the existence of the class struggle, including in imperialist countries such as Australia. That point of view sits rather awkwardly with the other fetish of the DSP leadership, which is an exaggerated and politically awkward attachment to an extreme view about the labour aristocracy in Australia.
This stubborn attachment to an outdated sociological construct is motivated by the desire of the DSP leadership to associate the labour aristocracy, so-called, with political Laborism. Nevertheless, I found myself in general agreement with Boyle’s presentation and said so from the floor.
The syllabus of the summer school was designed so that some of the minority group members were set up to defend the DSP’s point of view on vexed issues such as the Labor Party question, in which both groups hold the unscientific and sociologically nonsensical standpoint that the Labor Party-trade union set-up and the Tories are two equal capitalist parties. This point of view reaches its most extreme form in Jon Strauss’s material about the aristocracy of labour.
My view is quite different, and I argued the point with both groups on these questions and I got a quite courteous hearing. It’s pretty obvious that in their practical activity in the labour movement the DSP Boyle leadership’s unrealistic perspective has come up hard against the social reality that the overwhelming majority of the left side of Australian society, even Greens voters and activists, don’t place the equals sign that the DSP does between Labor and Liberal.
Neither DSP faction was pressing the point too hard about exposing Laborism the way they have done in the recent past. In a recent DSP internal bulletin, Lisa Macdonald talks up the prospects of the Socialist Alliance, with little evidence for this hyped-up attempt at a perspective. This approach has been ruthlessly criticised by the Percy minority, and it didn’t loom very large at the summer school.
The most interesting aspect of the event was two streams: one on building the party a la James P. Cannon (four lectures) and the other on liquidationism (also four lectures). These two streams were buttressed by a massive photocopied document of 200-300 pages containing internal material from past struggles in the Fourth International, reflecting the views of most of the major factions.
At the first of the talks on liquidationism John Percy rather peevishly commented that he didn’t see what function this stream had. The Boyle group pretty clearly thought it had a function. I attended some of the lectures on liquidationism and participated in the discussion, and it was a bit like being a fly on the wall in a domestic dispute.
Each group accused the other of liquidationism, and of not building the party in the proper Cannonist way. An indirect impact of this rather sharp internal dispute is clearly to raise the political level of the participants. Studying the history of the revolutionary socialist movement overseas, although it may seem eccentric to some, is never a bad thing, particularly in the current bleak political climate.
The difficulty, however, with this kind of discussion in groups such as the DSP — which for a long political generation educated people around the position that the essence of Leninism is a tight, Cannonist political regime — is that the discussion initially, and sometimes permanently, takes an extremely Talmudic form, as both sides batter each other with texts, often not in a very informative way and usually taken out of context.
Perhaps coincidentally, Jorge Jorquera, who is personally a very nice bloke and a very serious activist, mainly in Latin American solidarity work, has just posted on the web in a couple of places a general statement on Leninism that’s so abstract and opaque as to be almost totally incomprehensible. Jorge’s article, in my view, is an almost perfect example of how not to usefully discuss Leninism.
I must disclose a personal interest here, in that I’ve written two fairly lengthy and rather concrete articles, and I hope to produce a third in the near future summarising my views on the value of Lenin’s ideas and practice. The problem with the Talmud version of Leninism is that it concentrates almost totally on a Zinovievist and Cannonist version of the organisational question and ignores the context of Lenin’s approach to organisational matters at various points in his life.
This approach ignores the dynamic and healthily contradictory and empirical nature of Lenin’s real practice. Despite all this, serious discussion of Leninism is useful, and one starts wherever one is at. Clearly, for the DSP, that point is the sharp use of Leninism in an internal political struggle.
The thing that was most striking for me at the DSP summer school was that despite the obviously fierce and intense conflict between the leaders of the two factions, both groups seemed to have drawn back from an immediate split, and as I said from the floor in discussion on the last lecture, by Dave Holmes, that’s no bad thing as further unnecessary organisational splits do the the far left no good at all.
It may be that Holmes, on the Boyle side, is a retraining influence on the tendency towards a split and that’s an important factor, because Holmes is clearly the major figure in the internal financial arrangements of the DSP.
Another area of conflict was Venezuela. In this instance the majority seemed to be more careful than the minority, which talks as if a socialist revolution has already taken place. The Boyle supporters are more cautious. Discussion on the finer points of the Latin American shift to the left and the beginnings of socialist revolution in Venezuela were very detailed, and that’s no bad thing in our rather insular patch here in Australia.
I must confess a certain interest here also. Like any socialist I’m fascinated and enthusiastic about the process in Venezuela and to a lesser extent throughout Latin America. It’s no small thing in today’s imperialist world to see a part Amerindian, part Afro-American Bonapartist charismatic leader with origins in the lower ranks of the military sitting on one of the biggest oil streams in the world and carefully defying US imperialism while associating himself with Lenin, Trotsky and Jesus Christ and describing Bush as the devil — an appropriate description.
Chavez’s announcement about building a kind of 21st century socialism by way of what used to be called in Laborist and social democratic circles nationalising the commanding heights of the economy, makes this old rebel’s heart beat rather fast. Even more encouraging is the fact that this is being done in Venezuela without demolishing hard-won democratic rights.
I’m uneasy about the kind of thinking on the left that seeks salvation for the socialist project by wild enthusiasm for developments overseas, I’ve seen too much of that in my lifetime. Nevertheless, any socialist who doesn’t have respect for the Venuzuelan and Latin American revolutionary process clearly lacks a heart and is near to being politically brain-dead.
The weakest part of the DSP event was the discussion on the labour movement and the trade unions. The presentation on the unions was very thinly attended. It was formalistic and rather abstract and could have been presented anywhere and at any time in a Marxist group. Both factions were bankrupt of any real Marxist perspective for the actually existing workers movement, which is now heavily focused on defending the trade unions against Howard’s attacks, including getting rid of Howard by voting for Labor and the Greens.
Internally, the Percy group has been ruthlessly savaging the Boyle group’s bankrupt Socialist Alliance perspective, but the minority was carefully silent on this at the conference for obvious disciplinary reasons. The Boyle supporters themselves weren’t pushing too hard on the Socialist Alliance perspective, because it’s clearly dead in the water.
To sum up the conference, the DSP seems to have avoided a short-term split by more or less institutionalising a permanent discussion, which is unprecedented in the past 20 or 30 years in Cannonist organisations. That, in my opinion, is entirely healthy.
Because of the chop-chop, membership of both factions is down a bit. I still have the view that I formed early in the emergence of this conflict that the Percy group, taken as a whole, consists of more mature, serious people, and the Boyle group has more left-talking accidental figures and crazies. The Boyle leadership was clearly trying to keep those elements under control at the summer school, and some of them even seemed to be learning a bit.
Failure to attend the DSP summer school reveals a failure of imagination by the rest of the far left The only political independents at the gathering appeared to be myself and a friend, and also an industrial worker who is a former DSP member, and his wife, who have political differences with the DSP. The rest of the far left, ie Socialist Alternative, the ISO and Solidarity, kept away.
Partly that’s the DSP’s own fault. The ruthless way the small DSP machine minced up the other groups in the Socialist Alliance and rode roughshod over various groups of critical independents in that body, is the main reason why no one much outside the DSP went to the event. Another factor is the very big ideological gulf between the workers statist DSP and the other three major organisations, all of which come out of the state capitalist tradition.
Nevertheless, adult socialists should have very thick skins and a very serious eye to the possibility of real political discussion. Not even bothering to attend the summer school and argue with the DSP is a commentary on the currently dead-end sectarianism of the other groups towards each other and the DSP.
None of the small Marxist groups in Australia are going to eclipse each other. The world’s not like that for Marxists any more, and a sensible horizontal political and strategic discussion, particularly about the workers movement, is a burning necessity. It seems pretty weird that a groups such as Socialist Alternative, the DSP’s main political rival, should kick off the year with a public meeting advertised on posters around Newtown on the almost totally timeless and almost hopelessly reified subject of How Marx became a Marxist, and not even bother to attend, as a group, the DSP summer school, which was going on at about the same time, to argue with the DSP on political questions.
The emergence of a permanent dispute between the two groups in the DSP possibly indirectly opens the way for that kind of political discussion. The Socialist Alliance was a misconceived project based on an activist perspective excluding serious political discussion. Activism is what all the groups focus on to a greater or lesser degree, but for a period there should be a primary emphasis on serious political discussion, partly to guide the necessary activism in a realistic and principled way.
Nick Fredman January 22, 2007 @ 1:44pm Just as the good Lord bids us to be thankful for small mercies we should be grateful for the reasonable tone of comrade Bob’s latest musings on the DSP, which, although he continues with his extremely dubious insistence that he has omniscient knowledge of the inner discussions in the DSP and even the thinking of DSP members (maybe it’s true: scary!), makes a number of important points about the state of the Australian left, some of which I don’t even disagree with. While trying not to rehash too much of interminable past debates, I’ll make a couple of responses. Note I’m a member who couldn’t get to the conference.
“It’s pretty obvious that in their practical activity in the labour movement the DSP Boyle leadership’s unrealistic perspective has come up hard against the social reality that the overwhelming majority of the left side of Australian society, even Greens voters and activists don’t place the equals sign that the DSP does between Labor and Liberal. Neither DSP faction was pressing the point too hard about exposing Laborism the way they have done in the recent past.”
Point 1: I think Bob would be very hard pressed to actually prove, as opposed to apparently asserting from his impressions from this conference, that the public pronouncements and actions of the Socialist Alliance in regards to the ALP or the union movement have changed in any substantial way over the last five years, since the relevant perspectives were worked out with substantial agreement between the DSP, ISO and independent activists in SA (there were and are of course differences but the ISO later on grossly exaggerated them as one of their excuses to pull back), ie this united front perspective, which is a lot more flexible than Bob can ever seem to understand (and of course more critical of the ALP than he can ever agree with), has held up pretty well in the complex situation of an upturn in the labour movement hampered by bureaucratic and electoralist tendencies in the leadership (and how can any socialist seriously deny this is the case, even if the extent is debatable?).
Point 2: Things are unsurprisingly more complex in regards to the Greens, ALP and Socialist Alliance. I put it to Bob that the very nature of the Greens as a primarily (of course not exclusively) electoralist formation, focusing on policy and competition for votes, creates a sort of objective tendency towards sectarianism towards the ALP, which a socialist group, being much more about mass action from below and all that, can avoid. Of course most of what the Greens do is on the whole positive. At the end of the year Bob Brown was reported in the media as strongly warning the ALP not to repeat the monumental stupidity of preferencing Family First above the Greens, and stating something like “the job of the ALP is to win government and the job of the Greens is to win the balance of power in the Senate”. While we might say that’s quite limited as a perspective it’s also the best result the next election could bring and one the whole left should campaign for (which in a preference voting system is not at all contradicted by running socialist candidates). In regards to the IR campaign, some like like NSW upper house Greens member Lee Rhiannon from a Communist background have, for example, the perspective of organising campaigning meetings with the CFMEU and the Teachers Fed, and some Greens branches, at least the Byron Bay one, have called actions. But it seems to me that many Greens, through no necessary fault of their own, just don’t have a perspective beyond the electoralist and propagandistic. Examples, which are local and anecdotal but I don’t think isolated: In the last 20 months the campaign around here has been coordinated by the Northern Rivers Unionist Network, set up on the motion of two Socialist Allaince members at the first delegates meeting in May 2005. Since then I’m pretty sure the only Green who has attended a meeting (there’s about 25 people all up who’ve attended at least one), is someone from Byron Bay, once, to tell us about the action the Greens there called. Greens turn up to actions with triangles and leaflets, and have a speaker because each time I’ve suggested this. At the last meeting of 2006, there were 15 people present, including I think five ALP members and four SA members. It was congenial and a bit chaotic with drinks and nibblies but there was also a fairly serious discussion about the Nov 28 rally, which all regarded as a good success if smaller than Nov 30, 2005. However, to my surprise there was very strong criticism of the Greens speakers, the NSW election candidate. To my recollection (and I was both chairing and chasing my two year-old about so admittedly a bit distracted), he had just pointed out that the NSW and Vic ALP governments had not implemented their IR promises and could be doing a lot more, and that the Greens if elected would do a lot more, but ALPers and others (including if I right one of the SA members) saw this as breaking the unity of the day, and questions were raised about him being asked back. I countered that as a speaker at the June rally I had also criticised the ALP, that the SA speaker at the rally in question put forward a quite different idea of the campaign from the official one, which was showing worrying signs with the “lame-arse” as I put it new slogan, “your rights at work, worth voting for”, as a mobilised campaign is the best way the ALP could win the election, etc, etc. Oh but it’s all right from you, seemed to be the response, maybe from the way we’ve put things, or our position in the campaign. Dunno, it was all a bit odd, if maybe a bit telling about some of the Greens.
“The only political independents at the gathering appeared to be myself and a friend, and also an industrial worker who is a former DSP member, and his wife, who have political differences with the DSP.”
I understand a number of people agreed to join the DSP, and one non-DSP SA member from Lismore attended (with no encouragement from anyone in the DSP actually), so this can’t actually be quite true.
“Another factor is the very big ideological gulf between the workers statist DSP and the other three major organisations, all of which come out of the state capitalist tradition. Nevertheless, adult socialists should have very thick skins and a very serious eye to the possibility of real political discussion. Not even bothering to attend the summer school and argue with the DSP is a commentary on the currently dead-end sectarianism of the other groups towards each other and the DSP. None of the small Marxist groups in Australia are going to eclipse each other. The world’s not like that for Marxists any more, and a sensible horizontal political and strategic discussion, particularly about the workers movement, is a burning necessity.”
Can’t agree more. But it should be noted the DSP, while maybe not perfect in this regard, has done much more to facilitate discussion, or at least try to get some going, than any other group, by a mile. It’s also not true that SA was ever regarded as exclusively “activist” — that was actually the perspective of the ISO more than anyone else.
Unlike other groups, the DSP in my experience never has shielded members from engagement with other groups. Apart from giving other groups quite a few platforms as various sizeable conference over the last 15 years or so, the DSP within SA opened the door to any level of involvement in Green Left desired, including a fair share of editorial control (and a discussion about the name if it’s so horrible), encouraged involvement in Seeing Red magazine and the SA bulletin, and in fact in 2003 proposed a broad socialist summer school.
There’s still beyond the DSP a substantial layer of unionists, student activists, Indigenous activists, intellectuals, independent socialists in regional areas and even some ISO members still involved in SA and hence the discussion there, who Bob is either ignorant of or somewhat insultingly ignores. In regards to others, you can’t bludgeon people into a discussion, let alone into unity, and where we’re at, joint work and discussion wherever possible, is where we’re at. Nick Fredman is a Leninist in lotusland.
Chav January 22, 2007 @ 2:26pm “Nevertheless, adult socialists should have very thick skins and a very serious eye to the possibility of real political discussion. Not even bothering to attend the summer school and argue with the DSP is a commentary on the currently dead-end sectarianism of the other groups towards each other and the DSP [and yet …] The Boyle supporters themselves weren’t pushing too hard on the Socialist Alliance perspective, because it’s clearly dead in the water.” For the three state-cap groups mentioned, attending the DSP summer school sounds like a rerun of the very Socialist Alliance that is acknowledged as failing. “It seems pretty weird that a groups such as Socialist Alternative, the DSP’s main political rival, should kick off the year with a public meeting advertised on posters around Newtown on the almost totally timeless and almost hopelessly reified subject of How Marx became a Marxist, and not even bother to attend, as a group, the DSP summer school, which was going on at about the same time, to argue with the DSP on political questions.” Hehehe … I daresay the DSP may have found it “weird” if the membership of Socialist Alternative had turned up en masse at their summer school … but anyway.
Norm Dixon January 23, 2007 @ 9:35am Perhaps Bob should apply for the position of weather person on Channel 10?