Bob Gould, 2008

Sterile propaganda versus active struggle

Source: Ozleft, April 4, 2008
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

Michael Berrell’s political views are a strange mix. He supports the Chinese Stalinist regime against Tibetans struggling for autonomy, and he supports the Communist Party (Marxist) regime in Bengal cracking down on insurgent peasants who oppose being driven off their land for an industrial park owned by Western companies.

In Australian politics he’s a different kettle of fish (or maybe not). He implies that he will give an ultimate preference to the Liberals in the next state elections, which is certainly what his mentors at the World Socialist Web Site support through their preference recommendation to some of their voters.

All this, of course, is justified by very leftist rhetoric.

Berrell has posted an article by Terry Cook on the Green Left discussion site about the electricity privatisation in NSW and defended it rather strenuously. This article is, in its way, a classic of the WSWS genre, telling us the unions are inevitably going to acquiesce in the electricity privatisation proposed by the dominant personalities, at the moment, in the NSW Labor government, and it contains at least one barefaced lie that goes beyond the usual tortuous conspiracy theories, when it says Unions NSW has always supported privatisation.

Everyone knows, however, if they follow politics at all, that the unions 10 years ago spearheaded a campaign that defeated electricity privatisation, on that occasion by way of defeating the privatisation push of the government of the day at a Labor Party state conference, forcing Premier Bob Carr to withdraw the proposal.

Where actual events don’t fit their schemas, people like Berrell and Terry Cook just amend the historical record to suit. The common bourgeois journalistic term for this is extreme spin, and the Marxist term is historical falsification.

Berrell is unlikely to worry too much about that, since he supports the Stalinist regime in China. Historical falsification goes with that kind of territory.

Terry Cook and Berrell tell us that the government has decided on the electricity privatisation, therefore it will happen. That leaves out of the equation any conflict and struggle at the base of the labour movement, expressed through the existing workers’ organisations.

What’s actually happening in the material world is a conflict of material interests, worked out within a fairly traditional trade union, labour movement and Labor Party framework.

All the information I can glean, and it’s quite widespread, is that all attempts at compromise on the question have foundered on the fact that the privatisation is unacceptable to the overwhelming majority of the unions for a variety of reasons, not least their relative sensitivity to the mood of the population.

If anything, in the past week or so the unions have hardened up and seem quite determined to press ahead with watertight resolutions that will be carried by a substantial majority at the Labor Party conference. The resolutions reject the privatisation and call on the incoming Labor Party Administrative Committee to take whatever steps are necessary to persuade caucus and the government to withdraw the privatisation.

Politics is a complex business. There are very substantial forces in conflict and only a fool would predict every detail of the outcome. Essentially right-wing fools such as the WSWS and Berrell assert that the outcome will inevitably be the victory of the privatisation.

They have to say that because to acknowledge the existence of a struggle would lay bare the reactionary character of the call of the WSWS to leave the existing trade unions, and its equation of the unions and the labour movement with the conservative parties.

One example of the pace at which events are unfolding is that the Unions NSW executive this week unanimously decided to strongly request that the May Day committee change the traditional format of the annual celebration and march from the Sunday to the Saturday and to turn it into a march to the Labor Party conference to join the Unions NSW protest at the conference against the electricity privatisation. This Unions NSW proposal was accepted by the May Day committee, with little dissent.

Sterile propagandism crystallises out to the right.

Trotsky used to make the rather extreme statement, with considerable justification, that Stalinism was the syphilis of the labour movement. I think that sterile propagandism is the hepatitis C of the labour movement.

Hep C is a contagious, drastically debilitating illness that tends to render the victim inactive. People afflicted by sterile propagandism who consider themselves to be on the left are in much the same boat politically as victims of Hep C are medically.

As an example, I’ve only laid eyes on someone who claims to be Michael Berrell once, at a rather tense meeting called by the WSWS, to which I went with the intention of having a bit of a go at them.

I’ve never seen the same man at antiwar protests, political meetings of interest on the left, May Day, or the big trade union anti-privatisation protest. As an individual, he’s just a bloke who exercises his high-school debating skills on the web, and was once a member of the Labor Party, as he likes to tell us.

The individual opinions and voting intentions of someone like Berrell are intrinsically of little interest, except insofar as they provide an insight into the psychology of people like him. As well, discussing their attitudes sometimes has some educational value for other people. There are a lot of people like Berrell on the web.

The World Socialist Web Site bunch are slightly different. They’re occasionally seen at big protests or political events giving out leaflets, and they’re in almost exactly the same category as the Spartacist League in that their leaflets always have essentially the same theme: the protest or meeting is a waste of time because it’s led by people who will inevitably betray and the only political task is to leave all existing organisations, eschew all traditional forms of struggle, and join the WSWS or the Spartacist League.

These organisations like to model themselves, in a literary way, on their conception of the Bolsheviks, but their actual activity is an unpleasant right-wing parody of classical Bolshevism.

The Bolsheviks engaged in activity that was the polar opposite of the type of thing practised by the WSWS and the Spartacists. They were up to their ears in all the real social struggles of the masses, and in the trade unions, and they were constantly presenting a common unity perspective with other mass or socialist organisations. These essentially right-wing modern political clowns dishonour the Bolshevik tradition.

The courageous left-wing writer in the US, Mary McCarthy, who is one of my minor heroines, got into a famous libel suit with the Stalinist writer Lillian Hellman when McCarthy on the Dick Cabot Show said that everything Hellman wrote was a lie, even “and” and “the”. That’s close to the way I see major political statements on the WSWS, although I think some of their film criticism is OK.

On voting

I have a deep political animosity to anyone who even toys with the idea of voting for the Tories. For 150 years everyone in my family, with its mixture of Irish Catholic and communist elements, who only won the right to vote in Ireland and here in the mid-19th century, have always used their vote intelligently.

In Ireland they voted for the Irish nationalists. In Australia they voted initially for the protectionists and later for the Labor Party, and afterwards mostly Labor or Lang Labor, and occasionally Communist or Green, with an ultimate preference to the party on the working class side of the fence that had the best chance of being elected. This kind of voting pattern applied even to the most religious Catholics in my extended family.

There was plenty of debate and political discussion, but it was always within the plebian labour-movement, working class side of politics, and this was in a family that wasn’t especially blue collar. They were initially farmers, teachers and the like.

The only things that would get you drummed out of my tribe were voting Tory or joining the Masonic Lodge, all other sins were ultimately forgivable.

If I even contemplated voting Liberal, my ancestors would all haunt me, and when I hear people imply lightly that they may give their ultimate preference to the Liberals, metaphorically speaking I reach for my gun.