Bob Gould, 2007

The ultraleft united front from below tactic
Dave Noonan, John Robertson and Pat O’Shane call Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard to order

Source: Green Left Weekly discussion list, July 8, 2007
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

A week is a long time in politics and the past 10 days have been a very long time indeed. The Tory government of John Howard is in strife up to its elbows, and the government and the bourgeois press are lashing out in all directions to try to prevent a Labor electoral victory and a Labor-progressive majority in the Senate.

So far, the polls suggest, the media and the government have been unsuccessful, but the reactionary forces are still trying. The almost feral anti-Labor hysteria of the bourgeois media is a good guide to the problems facing reactionaries in Australia.

Information from the census underlines broad demographic processes that are making conservative majorities increasingly difficult to achieve. The number of non-believers in organised religion is steadily increasing, Catholics and the Orthodox are stable, and non-Christian religions are increasing sharply.

The number of recent migrants is steadily increasing, as is the number of indigenous Australians. That’s all bad news for the Tories. The contours of the coming electoral conflict are now pretty clear: flag-waving patriotic Tory hysteria about the need to support the increasingly unpopular Iraq war, shock and awe tactics based on underlying racist dogwhistling designed to reverse Aboriginal land rights, and artificial hysteria about so-called trade union bullies.

These issues are Howard’s rabbits for this election, and they’re clearly not working the way they have in the past. In the face of this reactionary propaganda, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard have tried to adapt somewhat to what they perceive to be the conservative attitudes of the electorate, and to some extent this suits their own conservative views and their desire to lay down a very conservative model for a future Labor government.

Nevertheless, the Bonapartist balancing of Rudd and Gillard between different social forces is fairly striking. One week they try to distance themselves from the trade unions in a rather demagogic way, then they swing back and say they’re going to abolish individual work contracts after all.

Initially they try to be bipartisan on Howard’s hypocritical assault on Aboriginal land rights, but as that operation starts to fall apart because of the obvious hypocrisy of Howard and co and the resistance of authoritative indigenous leaders, and at least parts of a number of state Labor governments, Rudd and Gillard begin to distance themselves a bit from Howard’s project.

The local resistance to Howard by the courageous indigenous minister in the Northern Territory Labor government, Marion Scrymgour, has been an important factor in all this, so much so that Noel Pearson singles her out for criticism in his article in the Murdoch press.

On the Iraq war, so far, Rudd has stuck to the Labor policy of rapid withdrawal if Labor wins government because he obviously senses how popular that proposition is with most of the population. Rudd is nobody’s fool in these matters.

In the past week or so, significant figures in the labour movement and the indigenous community have taken Rudd to task in a careful but determined way on many of the issues on which the Labor leadership’s retreat is obvious. Dave Noonan’s article in the Murdoch press was one example. Pat O’Shane’s letter in the Sydney Morning Herald on land rights is a second example. Unions NSW secretary John Robertson’s off-the cuff remarks at a meeting of 165 people in Howard’s electorate is a third example.

The meeting in Howard’s electorate provided a useful insight into the trade union-based campaign for the defeat of Howard and the election of a Labor government, part of the campaign that is being organised by the trade unions in a similar way throughout the country. This trade-union-based campaign, focused mainly on the battle against Work Choices, is a very substantial phenomenon.

Meetings organised as part of this campaign are uniformly well attended, and there are many effective committees campaigning in marginal seats in this framework. A number of the trade unionists at the North Shore meeting criticised Rudd for retreating on industrial questions while at the same time asserting the need to elect Rudd and the Labor Party and defeat Howard.

These critical notes were struck in a sensible and careful way and got an excellent response from the meeting. Robertson responded also in a realistic and sensible way, taking account of the real preoccupations of the left half of Australian society. He said the immediate task was the defeat of Howard and the election of a Labor government, but also said the unions, or at least the unions of which he is an important leader, would stand up Rudd vigorously in the event of any backsliding on industrial policy.

As with the meeting addressed by Dean Mighell in Melbourne, the Liberals obviously had a paid recorder and information gatherer in the audience who recorded Robertson without the permission of the meeting. (It’s worth noting in this context that in his letter arguing with Rudd this week, Dean Mighell once again said the recording of his November speech was unknown to the union and without its permission. Obviously there’s a little army of paid recording merchants operating throughout the country recording significant leaders of the workers movement to see what mischief can be made on behalf of the ruling class.)

It’s very difficult to doubt that the left half of Australian society is in the same kind of mood and situation as Noonan, O’Shane and Robertson, and in fact many people take their cue from the kind of lead offered by them. This mood, summarised in the core proposition that the immediate task is the defeat of the Howard government and its replacement by a Rudd Labor government, which is the only alternative currently on offer, but that the trade unions, indigenous Australians, and the left half of Australian society must stand up the incoming government on the basic questions on which the Labor leadership tends to retreat, or even has an outright bourgeois perspective.

That’s a fairly straightforward strategic orientation, one might think, and there’s no question that’s how the left half of Australian society views the immediate strategic tasks.

The Boyle DSP leadership’s minuscule “united front from below”

The only two groups on the left that seriously dissent from the kind of orientation spelled out above are the Boyle majority in the DSP and the groups known for its literary vehicle, the World Socialist Web Site.

The WSWS is marginally worse than the Boyle DSP leadership, but only in a limited way. The WSWS says workers should leave the existing trade unions and vote informal in elections, except in the couple of electorates contested by WSWS-supported candidates. The Boyleites, when challenged, mostly reluctantly say the final preference should be given to Labor in elections, but even in that they’re not entirely consistent.

They recently supported candidates in Newcastle in the state election who didn’t direct ultimate preferences to the Labor Party. However, they concentrate almost their whole propaganda on hysterical exposure of Laborism and everything to do with it. They would do well to step back a bit and study dialectics, the way Lenin did in 1915-16, but they never do anything like that.

Their sectarian mindset on Laborism and official trade unionism (and their own role, which they chronically exaggerate into a major factor in the workers movement) unbalances them completely. Their attitude to the existing labour movement is the classic Third Period approach practised by the Stalinists in the early 1930s, which Trotsky polemicised against so effectively and strenuously.

This terrible strategy imposed on the German Communist Party by Stalinism was, along with the betrayals of the Social Democrats, a major contributing factor to the victory of Hitler in Germany. The particular form of the strategy was the so-called united front from below. The Stalinised German Communist Party offered a united front to the German working class strictly on condition that the Social Democratic workers immediately repudiate their leaders, which of course was in reality no proposal for a united front at all.

The crackpot Australian version of this united front from below tactic practised by the Boyle leadeship of the DSP can be seen day after day and week after week on the Green Left discussion site and in Green Left Weekly. Every comment in the Green Left universe on affairs in the labour movement is hostile, often ridiculously so.

Examples where, due to the contradictory character of organisations such as the Labor Party and unions, good things are done at the official level of the labour movement are simply censored out of all comment. One would think, for instance, that when John Robertson stands up Rudd on industrial matters and is savaged in a deliberate and demagogic way by the bourgeois media, a socialist newspaper might register solidarity with Robertson in his struggles in the Labor Party and the unions to get a progressive trade union policy.

But what you get from Green Left is nothing, nada, zilch, on this question. That’s because the actual developments contradict the Boyleites’ proposition that the official labour movement must inevitably betray. (A secondary problem for the Boyleites is that they clearly don’t like to recognise, too explicitly, the developing systematic interference of the bourgeois media in the affairs of the workers movement. They themselves like to expose most of the leadership of the workers movement, so they’re a bit shy of the idea that trade union meetings should in some circumstances be private.)

An extreme example of the DSP’s semi-Stalinist united front from below approach is the question of the petitions. The official trade union movement in NSW has initiated a mass petition, to which it hopes to get about 200,000 signatures, directed at Rudd, laying down six or seven points as a minimum program for a Labor government on trade union matters.

So the DSP leadership jumps in with its own petition in much more strident language focused on the question, presented rather abstractly, of the right to strike, and the DSP’s core fetish that there must be another mass demonstration. This demand has no resonance at all in the bulk of the trade union movement, pretty well all of which has settled into election mode, as elections are imminent.

The DSP petition has a very limited number of initial endorsers, most of them Socialist Alliance members, and only a couple of them non-DSP leaders of the militant trade union current. It’s an almost classic united front from below tactic. All battles in the Labor Party on policy questions are avoided or ignored. Marion Scrymgour standing up on the indigenous question is ignored. Poor old Ratbag Radio Riley (a bloke who thinks that the Labor Party is not subjected to wedge politics by Howard) puts up a few pictures on his website of a demonstration outside the Queensland Labor Party conference.

This gathering was clearly a demonstration of ETU, transport, and CFMEU members, many of whom were delegates to the conference. The pictures, of course, aren’t explained, because to explain them would indicate the existence of struggle inside the Labor Party.

The ruinous effect of this hopeless political perspective lies mainly in the massive miseducation of the DSP members. In the DSP these days, any sort of ultraleftism seems to be OK. Rohan Gaiswinkler blows his top in response to Bob Gould, launching a crazy diatribe about Rudd and Gillard being scabs, and he asserts that he’s going to say so, and no one in the DSP tries to correct him. A pretty intense political degeneration is reflected in all this.

The DSP election campaign on the Gold Coast

While all these contradictory events have been proceeding in the labour movement at large, they’ve mainly been ignored on the Green Left list, which has been dominated by a rather eccentric preoccupation with an essentially propaganda exercise by the DSP-Socialist Alliance in the federal elections on the Gold Coast, historically a rather conservative part of Queensland.

This exercise is presented as if it’s a major challenge to the Howard government and the dominating issue in politics of the week. A new poster, who seems to live on the Gold Coast, comes to light on the Green Left list challenging this perspective in a sensible way and, as is usual, he’s jumped on and abused up hill and down dale by Riley, Boyle and the Stalinist sympathiser Raven, and of course Norm Dixon chimes in with his little verbal peashooter asking what this bloke might be up to, and is he suggesting that people should join the Labor Party.

Like any sensible person these days in the labour movement, given the track record of the new DSP leadership in these matters, this new poster is not too forthcoming about his perspectives in the labour movement, but he does spell out that he had some political experience in the Militant tendency in Britain around the time that group left the Labour Party, which he now thinks was a mistake.

In the course of the discussion his views are misrepresented and he has the temerity to say this sort of misrepresentation is a Stalinist practice. The oh so erudite pro-Stalinist Raven comes down on him verbally like a ton of bricks for even daring to use the category of Stalinist. According to Mr Raven in his previous attacks on me, the Stalinist states were inherently progressive and Raven started his outrageous attacks on me as an agent provocateur on precisely that point, spelling out that anyone who applauded the overthrow of Stalinism was by definition a provocateur.

It appears that all this is par for the course for the Boyleites. Anyone who says boo about Stalinism is now fair game. This pro-Stalinist slanderer, Raven, is treated with the utmost respect. The new poster on the list who dares to challenge the DSP’s ultraleftism is clearly learning fast about the uninhibited ultraleftism encouraged by the new DSP leadership and its division of labour with the pro-Stalinist Raven, with whom they agree about the Labor Party.

Objective trends in society and politics proceed independently of the fantasies of the new DSP leadership. The overwhelming strategic question in the workers movement, acknowledged by just about everyone in the left half of Australian society is the immediate task of defeating Howard and electing a Labor government, and the medium-term task of mass mobilisation both in society and the official structures of the workers movement to force the incoming Labor government to carry out progressive policies. Blustering left talk and political dishonesty are no use at all in relation to those strategic tasks.