Bob Gould, 2008

Implosion of a socialist sect
A balance sheet of the crisis in the DSP

Source: Green Left Weekly discussion list, January 2-8, 2008
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

The DSP will hold a decision-making conference on January 3-6. Delegates have been elected and the leadership has a majority a little larger than last time. The basic positions of the two contending groups have been made publicly available, producing a small flurry of comment on the website Marxmail, where Louis Proyect seems more preoccupied with the secondary matter of the documents having been made publicly available.

The preoccupation of Louis Proyect with public debate is correct up to a point and the major debates in the Bolshevik Party were conducted publicly. The practise of keeping key political discussion internal to socialist groups is a product of the Stalinisation of the Comintern. Nevertheless, I think it is quite unsound to insist that every detail of an internal discussion such as this one should be made public.

The rather extravagant organisational chop-chop and personal abuse that takes place internally in propaganda groups largely isolated from the labour movement, the working class and the class struggle, ought not to be made public. In all our comments on Ozleft on the internal battle in the DSP we’ve been at pains to deal with the political essentials and not broadcast some of the internal chop-chop, even when it has been available.

Small groups have a certain right to privacy in their internal arrangements, and a distinction should be made between the political issues in dispute, which should be public, and other matters, most of which should be private. We have the example before us of the bizarre so-called US SWP discussion list associated with Marxmail, much of which consists of nasty gossip, particularly the eccentric preoccupation of Philip Ferguson from New Zealand with speculation and vindictive gossip about who owns the US SWP’s assets.

Socialist decency and Marxist good sense should dictate a certain discretion in such matters. A cursory initial reading of the two platforms in the DSP could remind one of the rather effective Robert Crumb cartoon, which I (still feeling pain from the bitter split with John and Jim Percy and their supporters) reprinted in Australia on the back of a Zap comic book I published nearly 30 years ago as a commercial venture. It had two identical, snarling figures confronting each other, both holding placards. One said: Neo-Trotskyist Progressive Socialist Radical Action Club for International Peace, and the other said: Socialist Progressive Club for International Democracy Thru Radical Prototrotskyist Action.

One is also reminded, a bit, of the split chapter in Earl Birney’s novel, Down the Long Table, which is reproduced on Ozleft. Despite the similarities in the political positions of the two groups on a lot of questions, the DSP seems to be heading towards a split, which I regard as undesirable in the conditions of a declining, stagnating socialist left.

The two groups have in common a rather exaggerated emphasis on what they view as the enormous impact of the activities of Chavez in Venezuela for the prospects of the Australian left. I don’t want to be misunderstood on this. I have considerable regard for Chavez as the leader of a leftward-moving national movement with a strongly socialist aspect.

Any socialist has to consider a revolutionary nationalist figure who quotes Trotsky, calls Bush the devil and pushes along a revolutionary process in Venezuela, as a progressive figure in current global politics. Socialists who can’t see that aspect of Chavez are both brain-dead and totally lacking in socialist passion.

In addition to that, Venezuela is sitting on the biggest oilfields outside the Middle East, which gives it some clout in the world, and Chavez so far has resisted the temptation to crush opposition by bureaucratic means. It’s not entirely clear to me whether the process in Venezuela has entered a socialist phase but I’m respectful and enthusiastically supportive of Chavez and the Venezuelan masses and I follow the events in Venezuela with enormous interest.

Even so, the idea implicit in both platforms that the process in Venezuela is some kind of magic bullet for building the socialist movement in Australia is totally nuts from a Marxist point of view. When I first got involves in Marxist politics, Michel Pablo waxed enthusiastic about the revolutionary process in the Third World as a kind of magic bullet.

The ethos of that kind of debate in the Marxist movement is captured by Trevor Griffith in his play, The Party, in which Gerry Healy and Robin Blackburn battle it out, Healy emphasising the European working class and Blackburn holding Pablo’s view. (That didn’t stop Healy going on to develop his own version of the same kind of thing, in looking to Qaddaffi’s Libya and Saddam’s Iraq as the magic bullet for the socialist revolution in the West.)

Somewhat later, the DSP at the initiative of Jim Percy, and initially the US SWP, waxed lyrical about the revolutions in Grenada and Nicaragua. At Jim Percy’s initiative, the DSP even published a pamphlet about Nicaragua called The Cuban Revolution and its Extension, another variant on the magic bullet perspective.

There’s no doubt that the colonial revolts over many years since the 1940s, and their most radical moments, have had a progressive impact to some extent on the consciousness of the working class in the West, but it’s thoroughly fanciful, and a genuine triumph of hope over experience, to translate that into some notion, which is implicit in both platforms, that an energising influence from Venezuela can revive the socialist movement in Australia.

Socialists in Western countries have a moral obligation to solidarise with revolutionary movements in the Third World, particularly those such as the one in Venezuela that have a socialist aspect, but the idea that this will solve the problems of the socialist movement in Australia is basically an attempt to avoid developing an effective strategy for the revival of the socialist movement.

I don’t say this with any degree of triumphalism, because working out a real perspective is a major task and I don’t have any automatic schemas, but clutching on to overseas models in this way is a major factor in the isolation of Marxists, and their removal from reality, in imperialist countries.

On other matters in dispute between the two platforms, the minority is more realistic than the cobbled-together majority led by Peter Boyle. The minority makes mincemeat of the fantastic pretensions of the majority, which it quite accurately refers to as “clowning”. The minority raises a question that’s a central part of the problem facing socialists: the drop in the cultural level of Marxists, and specifically the members of the DSP.

In my view, this applies with considerable force to most of the far left. The minority proposes for the DSP a forced march in Marxist education, and it is correct on the need for that, up to a point. Again, while it’s necessary to try hard to get serious education going, the problems of doing so are considerable. There are things happening in the world of education and information that make serious study and Marxist development more accessible in one way, in that many things are on the internet, but more difficult in another, because current education arrangements tend to undermine sustained effort in self-education.

Again, this is an area in which I don’t have a magic bullet, but the emphasis of the DSP minority in trying to counteract the dropping interest in Marxism is very important. While I generally regard the sterile propaganda group emphasis of Socialist Alternative as a political obstacle to socialist development, there’s one good thing about Socialist Alternative: its central leader runs a quite wide-ranging personal bookstall at Socialist Alternative events in Melbourne and makes a strenuous effort to get the adherents of that group to read, albeit in within certain limits.

Another feature the two groups in the DSP have in common is a visceral hostility not just to the betrayals of Labor leaderships and the potential political betrayals of Green leaderships, but also an aristocratic contempt for the implied “stupidity” of the 99.9 per cent of the left half of Australian society who look to those leaderships.

In my view, back in 1986 or thereabouts, the DSP made a catastrophic political mistake in ditching the previous criterion in the Marxist movement for assessing the class character of existing workers’ organisations. The DSP decided then that the previous Marxist position was wrong in giving greater weight tactically to the class composition, the sociology, of labour parties and trade unions, than it did to the ostensible politics of their leaders.

The DSP has since been joined in that kind of analysis by the Taafites of the CWI (the Socialist Party in Australia) and even more extravagantly so, by the Socialist Equality Party and its associated World Socialist Web Site, which says all existing workers’ organisations are counter-revolutionary and the only political task of importance is to build the SEP as a separate socialist organisation (presumably in cyberspace, where it is mainly located).

This fundamentally flawed analysis, which basically dumps the sociology of mass organisations such as the Labor Party, the trade unions and the Greens in favour of unceasing polemics against the leaders of these organisations, is in my view a decisive and almost total, obstacle to elaborating a realistic perspective in Australian conditions. Such a perspective must involve a concrete orientation to the masses on the left side of Australian society, who look to the existing organisations and leaders.

The strategic orientation, most boldly expressed in the DSP by the Boyle majority, is that bootstrap-lifting activity of the DSP, which pretentiously and without any rational justification calls itself an alliance, can achieve a big political shift in the relatively short term. Ratbag Radio Riley is the crudest exponent of this view, but this view pervades the whole of the majority platform.

The bad political consequences of this kind of orientation are demonstrated by the rather unusual people who go into print on the Green Left discussion site in defence of Boyle and co, such as the aforementioned Riley, the good-hearted enthusiast Luke (who has, however, a basically religious approach to politics, with a kind of emphasis on political conversion as a strategy), another bloke, a strange pro-Stalinist who libelled me some months ago as an agent provocateur because I was critical of Stalinist regimes, and who specialises in attacking trade union militants who are Labor Party members, such as Harkins in Tasmania, and attacking anyone who surfaces in the Labor Party in struggle on the left, as stooges of the Labor Party bureaucracy, and now Jeff Richards, a bloke of rather ultraleft inclination who has been around the left for donkey’s years and appears to base his political perspectives on long-standing grievances with the Percy bunch.

In my experience of socialist politics, you’re unlikely to build anything, even in the medium term, around people like that, particularly in the difficult conditions facing Marxists now. It’s hardly surprising that many of the public supporters of the Boyle group are such extravagant voluntarists, because the whole Boyle political program, as demonstrated by the document made public on the web, is shot through with metaphysical and idealist voluntarism.

It focuses in a one-sided way on the prospects of the DSP as an organisation. It takes little account of the actual political conjuncture and the social circumstances in Australian society. Once again, I don’t claim to have any philosopher’s stone on programmatic and strategic questions, but a long life on the left has drummed into me, often through negative experience, the general point that it’s necessary to have both a bit of a picture of the dynamics at work in society, the working class and the ruling class, and flowing from that Marxists should elaborate a strategic orientation based on such an attempt at understanding and analysis.

Crazed voluntarism is the oldest and most enduring political illness in the Marxist movement. Riley is the most extreme and incautious exponent of voluntarism, but Peter Boyle isn’t far behind. There are two aspects to the majority view. One is the proposition that they have some kind of finished program and the second is that with enough activism, noise and denunciation of all and sundry, the masses will turn to them.

This sort of approach was always pernicious, but it verges on being barking mad in Australian society in 2008. The constant refrain of the Boyleites is that if the DSP only pushes harder the masses will turn to it, is metaphysics, and it’s at the core of all the thinking of the DSP majority leadership. One of the problems with this sort of voluntarism for a socialist propaganda group is that the gap between this kind of politics and the external world widens the political gap between theory and practice to the point that many people starting with the best intentions pass through the propaganda groups fairly rapidly after a year or two of bootstrap-lifting activity, because it appears to achieve little, and come out the other side innoculated against what they think is Marxism, and cured in many cases, unfortunately, of radical politics entirely.

Lenin and his associates had an utterly different and more dialectical approach to politics. As serendipity would have it, for the past couple of weeks I’ve been reading Rick Kuhn’s moving and useful book, Henryk Grossman and the Recovery of Marxism.

The last part, dealing with the evolution of Grossman’s ideas on Marxist economics, is extremely worthwhile, although it is heavy going. The earlier part, describing Grossman’s leadership of a substantial Marxist organisation of the Jewish working class in Galicia before World War I, is easier to read and very moving and interesting. After splitting from the Polish Marxist party, which had a chauvinist aspect and didn’t take seriously the organisation of the Jewish working class, Grossman’s organisation summed up its experiences in the following paragraph, which states extremely well the relationship between the socialist program and socialist organisation. The following is from the new party’s founding document, on page 65 of Rick Kuhn’s book.

Recognition, based on scientific socialism, that all forms of social consciousness are to be explained in terms of — class — and group interests, is of great practical significance in the assessment of a proletarian party, ie social democracy. This is also significant to the extent that it is true in — reverse — that is, the class interests of the proletariat find their expression in party consciousness (in the form of a program); party consciousness is the multi-faceted expression of the proletariat’s class interests and the most far-reaching interpretation of conclusions drawn from the objective trends of real social development. Workers’ parties do not always fulfill this requirement (as evidenced by the PPSD). Both the character and the contents of collective party thought remain — directly dependent on the particular party’s adjustment to the very working class — whose expression it should be. … The closest possible adaptation of the party’s organisation to the historical forms of the Jewish proletariat’s condition … could only be achieved through the mutual organic growth of the party’s organisation and the workers’ movement itself, just as the latter has grown out of capitalist society.

This small statement by Grossman’s new organisation is strikingly in accord with the approach adopted by Lenin throughout his political activities as they evolved. The program can only be seen as an organic part of the life of the socialist organisation, which has a very large tactical and class aspect, which is always concrete.

Belting out a program, as the Boyleites do, and inviting the masses to come along and submit to it, is the antithesis of the Leninist method of politics, and it usually leads to left-talking opportunism.

Many of the issues raised in the two DSP documents require careful investigation and analysis, but the unscientific and rather destructive Boyle view will be rammed through at the DSP convention by a mechanical majority. The Boyle group will then be in a position to force the minority out of the DSP if it so wishes.

If the Boyle supporters decide to take that course they will obviously rely heavily on a crude and out-of-context reading of the Jim Cannon of his middle years and Zinoviev’s deeply flawed History of the Bolshevik Party. They will also, obviously, argue that the situation of permanent factions is a great obstacle to the development of the DSP and that removing the opposition will enable the DSP to leap forward.

That view is nonsense. With its deeply flawed political perspective the DSP will go nowhere. Just in the past day or two a respected old hand in the DSP, Max Lane, a minority supporter, has very carefully and cautiously put some of the views of the minority on Marxmail. While there’s something in the Boyle view that three years of factional warfare is debilitating (I can’t imagine the stresses and tensions that must exist. Factional disputes that I’ve been involved in have usually lasted about a year before a split. After three years the internal atmosphere must stressful and debilitating to both factions.)

Nevertheless, further terminal splits in small socialist groups are deeply undesirable. Max Lane’s modest contribution is a bit of an indication of a possible alternative line of development. Public discussion of strategy and perspectives on the far left could involve both the contending groups in the DSP and other far left groups and individuals, with an emphasis on political discussion rather than invective and abuse, and the suspension of all organisational manoeuvres and arbitrary actions while such a debate proceeds.

PS. Best of Irish and Marxist luck to all participants in the DSP event. Retain a sense of humour. Happy new year.

Luke Skywalker lets the cat out of the bag

January 3, 2008

First of all, I've got nothing against Luke. Years ago at a demonstration he grumbled to me in a humorous way that I had kept him up half the night reading stuff that was on Ozleft. To anyone who writes, even for a small audience, the notion that anyone reacts is always flattering, so thanks for the interest.

I also found his personal apologia on the Green Left site, in which he described his itinerary involving experimentation with different religions, of some interest. But I’d submit to you that Marxist politics is something quite different to religious inquiry and enthusiasm.

I respect people who’ve experimented with religion, because it’s a fairly common phenomenon among vast numbers of people, including many workers and peasants. But religious enthusiasms applied to socialist, Marxist and working class politics is a thoroughgoing pain in the neck.

Marxism has a sociological, tactical and strategic aspect that’s central. Appeals to conversion can have a certain value when there’s an upward movement in the working class. Lenin was at some pains to insist that Marxist parties shouldn’t exclude religious people, and the Bolsheviks recruited very widely among the Old Believers, the most persecuted sect in Russia.

For that reason I’m completely out of sympathy with the attitude of flamboyant, reactionary bourgeois atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. The latter, in particular, uses his flamboyant atheism to attack Muslims and anti-imperialists of all sorts and advance the cause of US imperialism.

I belong to the Tariq Ali-Terry Eagleton faction in matters of religion. I do insist, however, that Marxism is a product of the Enlightenment and that Marxist politics and strategies based on simple religious enthusiasm, without a realistic balance sheet of the possibilities and social factors bearing on socialist tasks, are pernicious.

I don’t particularly like picking on him personally as representative of a trend among supporters of the DSP leaders, but in fact he is. On the matters in train in the DSP, he has well and truly let the cat out of the bag in a rather naive way (I find one aspect of how he did this deeply offensive. He refers to the minority as a tiny group of splitters who he hopes will be converted back to the true path. In fact, the leaders of this group have been fighting for socialism, and involved in socialist political activity for more than 30 years. I’ve had deep-rooted conflicts with them, which are unlikely to go away unless we reach some clarity, but I have respect for their ongoing political activity and understanding. Luke would do better to try to learn something from them, rather than dismissing them as an absurd minority standing in the way of the progress of the DSP.)

The story Luke tells lets the cat out of the bag in the following way. It’s quite clear what he repeatd on the Green Left list is the story that the Boyle leadership is telling the ranks of its faction. I don’t doubt they’re telling the ranks this story with the advantages they have from being in charge of a small apparatus, and I don’t doubt that they’re telling the ranks about the minority with the extravagant vindictiveness that is often present in disputes in small groups, and which bursts out from time to time on the Green Left discussion site and Marxmail.

The story he repeats is obviously the bill of goods for the forthcoming expulsions. If he’s repeating the story the way he does, it’s clear the exclusion of the minority is immediately pending. The way these things work in small groups is that the Boyle leadership has obviously telling everyone among the majority’s relatively small rank and file that a split is likely and probably unavoidable and the onus is on the minority.

This all has a bit of a flavour of the exclusion of the Cochrane-Braverman minority in the US SWP in 1953, which was justified by Jim Cannon and others on the grounds of the minority’s boycott of the big anniversary celebration of the SWP.

Another aspect of Luke blurting it all out is also significant. He referds to the opposition as a tiny minority. In a very small organisation, the probably 40 or so members of the minority are in fact a fair chunk of the membership, and they include a large number of the seasoned, historic leaders of the DSP.

If Luke thinks they’re a small, irrelevant minority who can just be shrugged off unless they respond to the majority’s calls for conversion, his view of practical politics is even more eccentric than I thought. It’s pretty clear from his blurting it out that the expulsions won’t happen at the congress, but afterwards, and the minority will be presented with some sort of ultimatum to buckle under or they’re out in the interests of the homogeneity of the organisation and the great possibilities that face it.

Of course, that’s all nonsense, and obviously so. The ranks of the Boyle faction should be a bit cautious in these matters, and even now restrain their leaders from forcing a split the outcome of which will be the opposite of what Luke desires.

This is the way a split happens: not with a bang but with constitutional and personnel changes

January 8, 2008

As has been pretty obvious from the material posted on the web by supporters of the Boyle leadership, the DSP conference laid the basis for the expulsion of the minority in fairly short order. Major personnel changes took place at the congress.

John Percy, one of the leaders of the minority, was replaced as president by Jim McIlroy from the majority, which suggests that the couple of remaining minority supporters on the full-time national office staff will probably be removed fairly quickly, if they haven’t been, in practice, already.

Peter Boyle, in reporting cautiously on the conference, makes a point that women have been promoted in the new leadership, but that’s obviously just a figleaf for factional considerations. The nitty gritty of the event was the constitutional changes on the final day.

In the years leading up to the Boyle coup, the DSP had gradually relaxed its previously extreme Cannonism and for practical reasons dropped a few provisions directed against minorities. This trend has been reversed by the Boyle group, which changed the constitution to make it a political crime to even “canvass” minority views in public.

Under that rubric almost any public expression of views by the minority could be used to get rid of them, and it almost certainly will be used in such a way at a time convenient to the Boyle group. A throwaway remark in one of Luke Weyland’s over-enthusiastic contributions on the web seems to indicate which way the wind is blowing.

He makes reference to looking forward to reading the second volume of the DSP-Resistance history written by someone called Jim. There are three possibilities here: he has confused John and Jim Percy, he’s communicating with Jim’s ghost by some mechanism (a ouija board, perhaps), or more likely the task of writing the history has been taken from John Percy and given to Jim McIlroy.

I’ve also been looking forward to the second part of John Percy’s account of the history of the DSP with a view to arguing with him about his version of events, but at least John is in the position of having been in a central leadership role in the organisation from day one, and his version of events is worth arguing about, as I’ll continue to do.

I haven’t quite finished with the first volume yet. The bizarre practice of changing the writers of party histories to suit the political exigencies of the day brings to mind the history of Stalinism. The first time around the Stalinist rewriting of Bolshevik history was tragedy, but the idea of the amiable but rather ineffectual Jim McIlroy writing a version of the history to suit the Boyle groups slides from tragedy into farce.

The Boyleites have suddenly become ferocious enthusiasts for the organisational practices of Jim Cannon’s middle years, and they do Cannon a disservice by seizing on him in this way. Cannon was a many-sided political and workers’ leader. He made many mistakes but he was quite capable of correcting them after a while. (Louis Proyect’s demagogy about dumping all of Cannon’s books is excessive.)

One is reminded in this situation of Cannon’s prescient warning in 1965, Don’t Strangle the Party, against a similar tightening of the rules of the US SWP, which laid the basis for its future degeneration. It’s a pity the Australian DSP doesn’t have someone of Cannon’s experience and stature to issue a similar warning to the Boyleites.

Anyone who thinks my version of the evolution of the Boyle bunch is too severe should carefully read Ratbag Radio Riley’s account of the convention on his blog and Luke Weyland’s comment on Riley’s contribution. Coincident with all this the DSP has just published a short piece by Sue Bolton from India, where she attended the December congress of the CPI (ML).

Bolton doesn’t stint on self-praise, describing herself as “tirelessly interacting with a range of delegates” (give us a break). Bolton spelled out to an overseas audience the current line of the Boyle group, which was adopted at the DSP convention. Flying in the face of all political reality, she attributes to the DSP an enormous role in the defeat of the Howard government and the election of the Rudd Labor government.

She says the major factor in this was industrial mobilisations in Victoria and WA. Well, healthy and useful as those mobilisations were, the DSP was only a marginal force in the fact that they took place, and whether they were a critical factor in the election outcome is very hard to quantify. In Victoria and WA, where those mobilisations mainly took place, Labor won few seats in the election.

If fact, the only seat Labor lost, against the trend, was in WA. Most of Labor’s gains were in places where that sort of mobilisation wasn’t so obvious: NSW, Tasmania and Queensland.

The Boyleites will say anything to exaggerate their own importance, and that is a very bad guide to Marxist politics. During the conference quite a few of the participants drifted through my shop, and the oppositionists seemed in reasonable spirits despite the battering they were receiving.

Taken as a whole, although this is a subjective impression, the oppositionists are saner and calmer people than many of the majority supporters, although the majority supporters who drifted through the shop were also quite rational.

Riley, on his blog, makes a hullaballoo about how the minority should be proper Leninists and shut up now, while the line is tested in practice. The difficulty with that proposition is that the Boyleites’ perspectives are so out of context with reality that it’s hard to perceive how the minority could put them into practice.

The majority makes much about the Greens (which in Australian terms are very large small mass party that now gets 10 per cent of the vote to the left of Labor) being really no good at all because they don’t have the full program of the Socialist Alliance.

In Sue Bolton’s report from India, another theme is developed: that the current student movement is no good either, because it consists of inward-looking left cliques, she says. This is an indirect attack on the minority, which places great emphasis on reviving Resistance, and it’s also an obvious attack on the DSP’s main propaganda group rival, Socialist Alternative.

At the Australian student union conference in December, Labor Party supporters were the dominant force, and the Socialist Alternative bunch had a rather substantial 12 per cent of the delegates. There was one solitary delegate from the DSP at that conference.

So, you see, the Boyleites say, the student movement is no good because it doesn’t accept our leadership. I could go on, but there’s not much point. A lot of the documents and comments speak for themselves.

I’m still mulling over the weird statistical document from the Socialist Alliance, and I’m half-tempted to write a Mr Bean-style skit on it, with Mr Bean turning it upside down, this way and that, biting it, and eventually stamping on it, but that might be a little on the harsh side.

To sum up, the DSP has now settled down to being a formation with the worst organisational rigidity from some of the saddest periods of Marxist history. The opposition will probably be driven out in a fairly short time, and the business about canvassing their views will be the pretext for the purge. The constitutional change prohibiting minorities from “canvassing” their views quite clearly would bar things like Max Lane’s very cautious expression of his views on Marxmail a few days ago. It’s a clear declaration that disciplinary action will be taken against anyone who does anything similar.