Bob Gould, 2007

Questions to the ideological leaders of Marxmail
In light of the sweeping defeat of the conservative government in Australia and the election of Labor

Source: Marxmail, December 5, 2007
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

By now you may be aware of, although you have not commented at any length on, the defeat of Bush’s surviving Iraq war ally, John Howard, the conservative prime minister of Australia, and his xenophobic, racist, anti-trade-union Liberal Party. Surely this development is worthy of comment.

My first question is to the ideological pacemaker of Marxmail, Joaquin Bustello. How does this development in Australia square with the core tenets of your rapidly developing alternative ideology to Marxism? Insofar as I understand it, you’ve developed the view that the working class in advanced capitalist countries either never existed, or at least never existed as a class for itself, even momentarily, and as a result of your new ideological construction, the modern trade union movement is at best irrelevant, but more usually in your writings, a major vehicle for imperialism.

The Australian developments seem to refute that general approach. It’s universally accepted in Australia that the legislative attacks of the Howard government on the right of trade unions to organise and on the right of workers to collectively bargain was the main factor in the defeat of the government. The subjective factor in this defeat was a major mobilisation initiated by the trade unions, even in their relatively weakened state, of tens of thousands of workers in demonstrations and electoral campaigning in marginal seats, culminating on election day in a mobilisation of about 100,000 on polling booths, of whom about half were workers by hand and brain, many thousands of them trade unionists.

It’s also worth noting in this context that a large and vital section of the mobilisation through the vehicle of the trade unions and the Labor Party were migrants of non-English-speaking background or their children, and Aboriginal Australians.

Due largely to compulsory voting, perhaps 95 per cent of Aboriginal people voted, and they voted 90 per cent for the Labor Party. The Aboriginal vote, in particular, was mobilised by sections of the labour movement opposed to the bad aspects of the Howard government’s military style intervention in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities.

I’ve noted, Joaquin, that you’ve made extensive comment on developments in Britain, arguing from afar, it must be said, that some kind of nationalist movement of people of colour should be developed in Britain. I don’t quite understand how you’re so confident about your constructions about Britain, but by implication it seems to me that you may favour some kind of Third World nationalist movement of this sort in Australia.

I might say that there’s no evidence at all in Australia of any objective basis for such a metaphysical schema. People of migrant background, migrants of colour, and Aboriginal people, now make up almost half of the Australian population, and they’re rapidly becoming politicised, partly in defensive response to the racism of the conservatives and of some people in the more conservative sections of the labour movement.

Migrants from 162 countries now make up the largest proportion of the organised working class in Australia (the very notion of the organised working class may be anathema to you in view of your writing in recent times). It must be said that the overwhelming majority of people of colour, both migrant and Aboriginal, on the left side of Australian society, find the vehicle for their current political expression in the Labor Party and the trade unions.

How does any of this square with your rapidly developing thesis, shared in a way by conservative ideologues, that the working class is no longer the significant force it once was?

A question for Louis Proyect

As you know from lengthy things I’ve written over the past few years, I share your interest in what you originally termed Zinovievism, and have views about that question at an historical level. My understanding is that Zinovievism, or the over-centralisation of Marxist and socialist groups, flowed from the Stalinist degeneration in the Soviet Union that set in after the death of Lenin.

My view on those questions is that the aim, through stubborn attempts at discussion, conflict and collaboration, with relatively young members of a number of the existing Marxist groups, should be the development of a better model of socialist organisation without the ultra-centralisation expressed in the Stalinist degeneration that gave rise to Zinovievism.

As an exasperated watcher of discussion on Marxmail, I’m fascinated that adult socialists on your associated SWP list should spend so much time, at least literary time, on vindictive, stupid and apolitical incantations and gossip about the US SWP and other socialist groups. I’m no pacifist in polemical matters, as many people know, but I see little point in constant trivial and poorly developed railing against one’s perceived enemies.

The contributions in Australia of Ratbag Radio Riley, and on the SWP list particularly of Phillip Ferguson the academic from New Zealand, seem to me to fall over the edge from rational polemic into what Belloc, or was it Chesterton, called the higher lunacy.

For what it’s worth, I regard the members, and even the leaders, of the various Marxist groups in the Trotskyist tradition as, up to a point, my comrades. The point of arguing with them or commenting on them is to try to crack open their hard shells with the aim of prompting discussion about what to do next.

Based on my 55 years of political activity, I can only conclude that the tone, style and content of the SWP list is barking mad, from a Marxist point of view. Trying to sift through the entrails of the Barnes outfit to find auguries about its degeneration resembles, to me, the preoccupation of medieval theologians with how many angels could cavort on the head of a pin, and it’s about as useful.

Concerning the problems of discussion among socialist groups in Australia, I draw your attention, Louis, to the question of the Greens. This recent election has defined the shape of political development in Australia for quite a while to come. The Labor vote has revived dramatically, particularly in poorer areas with lower incomes, and particularly among migrants of non-English-speaking backgrounds, as bourgeois journalists such as George Megalogenis are now noting.

He has just produced an analysis pointing out that Labor won 30 of the 31 electorates with the highest concentration of non-English-speaking-background migrants. Of those seats, the ones with the most exploited sections of the working class were won by Labor with about 70 per cent of the vote.

Everything about this election reinforces the reality, in Australia at least, that election results are mostly a matter of class, which is something that can be absorbed cursorily by looking at a map of electoral outcomes in all the major Australian cities. There’s a big core difference in Australia between the primary electoral votes of Labor and the Liberals and class divisions are clearly the major part of this.

The Greens in Australia are a broadly leftist political formation with their primary vote in the new social layers of tertiary educated and technically trained workers, and to some extent among youth. Their vote is rather more Anglo and European than the Labor vote. The Green vote increased in this election and now nudges 10 per cent nationally. That’s a figure around which, in my opinion, it will remain stable for the foreseeable future. The Greens are now a small mass party, with probably after this election, 10,000 to 15,000 members nationally.

In this election, despite conflict on some questions, a comprehensive preference agreement was achieved by Labor and the Greens, and it held up. Without Greens preferences it would have been very hard for Labor to win the election. In my view we face a time in which a broad labour movement, consisting mainly at the political level of Labor and the Greens, is the obvious arena for agitation and intervention by organised socialists.

Some socialist groups have recognised that in a rational way, and three of them — Solidarity, the ISO and a smaller group in Brisbane — made a tactical turn towards the Greens. They learned a lot during the election campaign, got themselves a bit of an audience on the left, and incidentally seem highly likely to form a united organisation between the three of them in the fairly near future.

Those three groups have evolved a style of conducting tactical discussion pretty publicly, and they seem to be in the process of ditching the exaggerated Zinovievism that both Proyect and Gould have commented on over the past few years. They haven’t relinquished, and nor should they, the general aim of socialist activity and intervention.

By way of contrast, the two slightly bigger propaganda groups, the DSP majority and Socialist Alternative, have retreated into their Zinovievist shells, like turtles, so to speak. The worst example of the turtle sickness is the DSP majority, whose pretensions to be the organising centre of some kind of alliance as a major influence in the workers movement have been punctured by the election results. They are flailing around accusing assorted opponents of betrayal.

The people they mainly accuse are the different socialist groups that don’t accept the DSP’s strategic pretensions. The DSP majority has turned up the pressure on the DSP minority in defence of the majority’s bankrupt perspective. Given the way these things tend to go, it seems likely that the logic of the majority’s pretensions will be eventually to force the minority out.

I don’t favour further splits, given the relatively weak state of the socialist movement, but such a division may occur. A straw in the wind is that in the internal material of the DSP, I’m told on good authority, the leadership is lashing out at assorted members of the Socialist Alliance in a verbal way for not working hard enough on the exotic, totally voluntarist and quite unsuccessful Socialist Alliance election campaign.

Particular targets of this treatment are some Socialist Alliance members who’ve recently departed from the DSP. Finding scapegoats for objective defeats is a very old practice in small Marxist groups. The Healy organisations, when I was familiar with them, were past masters at that kind of thing, and nothing good ever came of it.

Bankrupt perspectives usually become even more disastrous as the leaders attempt to defend them, in my observation. The increasing crisis of perspective facing the DSP majority is demonstrated pretty clearly by the semi-coherent ravings of Ratbag Radio Riley and the rather vindictive comments on Marxmail of the usually careful and mild-mannered Nick Fredman.

Underlying their comments and the election analysis of Dick Nichols in Green Left Weekly are the obviously false implication that the Socialist Alliance did pretty well in the election, and the voluntarist and un-Marxist implication that if we really just worked a little harder and those other pesky socialist groups stopped obstructing us, the Alliance would blossom as the necessary, all-encompassing centre of the fightback. Pigs might fly.

A rather ugly note emerges in Nick Fredman’s comment on the ISO’s support for the Greens in the recent election. Fredman argues that any orientation of such groups towards the Greens is unprincipled unless these groups adopt the DSP’s Third Period, united-front-from-below strategy, demanding that if these groups consider joining the Greens they should demand public rights to be a separate political formation as well.

He’s jumping the gun a bit, because there’s no evidence that these groups want to join the Greens. If they did, the last thing they should even consider is adopting a DSP-style clamorous demand to be a separate political outfit in the Greens. Many people in the Greens have extremely bad memories of the DSP’s operations in and around the Greens years ago and their equally clamorous intervention in the Nuclear Disarmament Party.

The last thing any socialists in and around the Greens should do is adopt DSP-style clamorous super-interventionist styles of work.

The obvious question that everyone on the far left in Australia is asking in their own different ways, often with their own organisational axes to grind, is what do we do now in Australia. I’d be very interested in the views of the ideological leaders of the Marxmail club on that question.

Joaquin, in particular, seems to have plenty of ideas about Britain. For my part, I don’t claim to have all the answers, but a number of things seem quite obvious. There are certainly battles to come, and agitations of all sorts are likely to develop once the sheer delight of the left side of society at doing in the conservatives has been savoured for a while.

The exposure politics of some of the socialist groups is clearly bankrupt, and even counterproductive. In the sphere of the politicised mass movements the obvious arenas of activity are still the trade unions, the Labor Party and now the Greens small mass party, as well as the substantial social movements that exist. There’s also a very pressing need in the short term for Marxist study and historical and theoretical training in a bit of a forced march to raise the political level of the new forces being brought into activity.

It seems to me that the relatively conservative character of the new Labor government is not an absolute obstacle to a leftist mobilisation. The conditions, however, for such a mobilisation are a recognition of the present state of play in the workers movement and society at large. There’s a mood of what I would characterise as defensive militancy in the trade unions.

There are some expectations in society at large about the need for progressive actions by the incoming Labor government. For quite a while, however, Rudd and his team will have the political authority on the left side of society, which politicians get from an electoral victory, particularly one that brings down a Tory government that seemed often to be impregnable.

We need a rapid discussion of a sensible leftist minimum program on all the obvious questions of the day. The kind of program on which it might just be possible to get broad agreement in the trade union movement, the progressive social movements and the Labor Party and Green mass political organisations, as well as the left side of society at large.

We should seize the day in a non-sectarian spirit, using careful language in the mass movement, which takes into account the existing and long-term needs of the labour movement, the Green mass movement, and all components of both. In these conditions we should generalise our agitation on a broad range of questions, eschewing like the plague Byzantine left talk attacking the existing leaders of the various mass movements, and political organisations on the left side of society. I’m interested in comments on perspectives on these developments in Australia from the ideological leaders of the Marxmail club.