Bob Gould, 2008

Propagandism and the struggle against electricity privatisation

Source: Leftwrites, Ozleft, May 6, 2008
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

There’ve been a few comments on Leftwrites about the electricity privatisation struggle. Ablokeimet obviously has some serious understanding of the history of the Australian labour movement and some sense of the form of mass struggles, and I thank him for his pretty sensible observation.

I don’t want to be too hard on Tom O’Lincoln, but his response encapsulates the completely unscientific, and particularly the un-Leninist, notions and practice at the core of the permanent propaganda orientation of Socialist Alternative, to which Tom moved from the ISO a year or two ago.

Mick Armstrong, who I kind of like personally, has just written a lengthy and erudite document turning this propaganda orientation, which he has always had, into an overarching political theory, a view that Tom O’Lincoln seems to share. This appears to be the theory on which Socialist Alternative operates.

In a way, this theory postulates students as a permanent vanguard of the class struggle. This differs from Lenin’s view of students, which accepted that upsurges of political activity among students were often precursors of big social upsurges to come. The Bolsheviks didn’t neglect work among students, but they made no concessions to the idea of students as some kind of revolutionary vanguard even if some leader of a socialist sect, such as Armstrong, christened them a leadership with some kind of Marxist holy water.

The Bolsheviks always strove to maintain some student work and to be a substantial political force among the masses at the same time, and particularly to win a base in the working class, both the vanguard elements of industrial militants and the more conservative sections.

The Bolsheviks also put a lot of effort into getting a toehold in the Zubatov-sponsored Tsarist trade unions. They didn’t set any sphere of work against any other, but Lenin developed the view over time that a permanent student vanguard was nonsense, even if the students were christened a Marxist leadership. This kind of argument was at the heart of his very sharp conflict with the Committeemen at the time of the 1905 revolution.

This permanent student perspective is at the heart of Socialist Alternative’s political practice.

When you approach SA’s political practice and the theorisation of it, you can see the theoretical and practical manifestation of a seriously flawed approach.

O’Lincoln responds to the assertion of Ablokeimet that the upsurge against electricity privatisation has aspects of a mass movement, saying there’ve been no strikes and demonstrations, therefore it can’t be a mass movement. That’s a foolish thing to say, but it’s entirely consistent with a permanent student orientation. (In fact, there have been mass meetings and demonstrations, and the biggest one was a month ago at the opening of parliament, by about 7000 workers, several thousand of whom went on strike for the day.)

In the current conditions in Australia, industrial and social upsurges rarely start with strikes, etc. They’re usually pretty defensive. To say it’s not a mass movement because it didn’t start with strikes is to impose on the Australian movement an imaginary schema based on a casual and incoherent reading of events in the Russian Revolution and 1968 in France, which are often waved around as models by people who don’t pay much attention to detail.

I’m familiar with the practice of Socialist Alternative in NSW, in the sense that I see them concentrating most of their activities among the masses on their Tuesday evening propaganda meetings in a hall in King Street, Newtown, usually on rather self-reinforcing abstract topics. People I know encounter them on university campuses behaving in much the same way.

They have some success with this approach among students and a few youth who are outside the workers’ movement. Their problem, however, is that Socialist Alternative is almost totally a revolving door, except for a few old hands who are incurable propagandists. You rarely see the same faces six months later.

On the last two election days I’ve been fascinated by Socialist Alternative’s notion of activity. The Newtown polling booth is a big one for two adjoining electorates and a hive of activity on election day. Socialist Alternative on both occasions has turned up at about 2pm for their routine propaganda meeting directed at the theatre-goers at the Dendy cinema across the road, deliberately ignoring the election activity in a quite imperious way.

The Socialist Alternative youth are usually shepherded by their core of older propagandist members to keep away from the voters, and particularly to keep away from people in other socialist groups, who might contaminate them.

Socialist Alternative’s other activity is a bit of closed-group red flag waving on May Day. This reached a ridiculous point at last Sunday’s May Day in Sydney. Socialist Alternative turned out its 50 or so members and supporters with red flags and slogans, sold magazines in a desultory way to the May Day crowd, and deliberately ignored the delegates pouring in and out of the NSW Labor conference.

Because of the change of venue for May Day from the Domain to the Darling Harbour Convention Centre, to turn it into a protest against privatisation at the Labor conference, the march was very short. Socialist Alternative’s members with their red flags and rather ultraleft slogans were rigidly shepherded into the usual tight group, but the result was ridiculous. All that shepherding and propaganda activity only resulted in them being able to walk for about 1km around Darling Harbour, and at no stage did they have any impact on events in the Labor conference, even physical external contact, from which they abstained.

At the 20 or so anti-privatisation meetings I’ve attended around Sydney I’ve only seen Socialist Alternative once, at Alexandria town hall. In an intervention at the meeting, a young woman from Socialist Alternative, who I had never seen before, belted out the story that the campaign was of limited importance so far because the unions hadn’t called more mass strikes and big demonstrations on the issue, and she said the masses would respond if the call was given, and the failure to give the call was a conspiracy by the trade union bureaucracy.

I replied to this view in discussion, but the most effective response was from Doug Cameron, longtime left leader of the metalworkers union, who made the sound point that the young Socialist Alternative member lived in a different universe from him. He couldn’t see the big, spontaneous mass movement that just had to be unleashed, and he made the general point that in current conditions serious responses had to be organised and led, and quite frequently even if organised and led, only modest results could be achieved industrially.

Cameron is clearly correct about the defensive situation facing the labour movement in Australia, although as we all know trade union leaders often try to contain movements as they unfold, which they shouldn’t do.

In reality, Tom O’Lincoln, the young woman at the meeting, and Mick Armstrong, are capitulating to spontaneity. That might in some circumstances be quite useful, but in current conditions they’re doing something that’s quite eccentric by adapting to an imaginary spontaneity that they’ve entirely imagined. That is pretty weird for people who claim to be students of Lenin, since Lenin spent a large part of his political life trying to train the activists of the Bolshevik Party against developing such fantasies.

The problem with all this in current Australian conditions is that you create a group, you give it a sort of in-group very tight esprit de corps, you fence off the members from real interaction with the political world of the working class, you give them an entirely literary education in selected Marxist texts, and worst of all you discourage them from listening to anyone else by christening them the knowledgeable revolutionary vanguard to which the masses will inevitably turn if you preach at them enough.

Discouragement of listening and serious investigation is the greatest travesty of Lenin’s method. Lenin was the greatest listener and investigator in political history. He had the firmest, and often very individual, Marxist outlook and his political practice constantly evolved on the basis of further investigation.

When you construct a closed system and call it Leninism, you’re insulting Lenin’s memory in the worst possible way.

What’s worse, you create an outfit in which you christen semi-educated youth and students as some sort of automatic revolutionary vanguard to which the masses will turn. You never turn them towards the mass movement to listen and learn and to try to offer some leadership in concrete struggles outside the student movement.

You create a bunch of know-alls with a sort of cult reverence for a few leaders such as Armstrong. They become know-alls whose actual knowledge is severely limited by their training and experience.

When you do get the members to make occasional forays into some struggle or other, all they can think to say is some platitude about how it would be better if we had strikes, etc, and they never have any concrete ideas to offer on how to develop the next stage of the movement, except that set of platitudes, which are sometimes right (the stopped clock is right twice a day) but are usually wrong.

I don’t know what to say about Socialist Alternative’s grab bag of theories and practices. As I’ve said, I kind of like Mick Armstrong personally and he deserves respect for more than 20 years of socialist political activity, but his propaganda group obsession is a hopeless obstacle to the development of a serious Marxist or Leninist group.

Discussion (rehosted from Leftwrites)

Chav, May 8, 2008 Does such sectarian tripe deserve a response? Hmmm — I’m not sure, will have to think about it. I can’t help but think that Bob’s own “serious Marxist or Leninist group” might be bigger than say, oh, one person — if he was able to get over his inability to distinguish the mass of workers from the trade union officials.

Tom O’Lincoln May 8, 2008 “I don’t know what to say about Socialist Alternative’s grab bag of theories and practices.” Well, you still manage to say it at some length. Bob, thank you for your reports on the ALP conference, which I found absolutely rivetting. I should have found an opportunity to say so earlier. And to repeat: as I said first off in my previous comment, I’m impressed by the rebellion in the NSW ALP.

Darren May 10, 2008 actually thought that Tom O lincon’s comments were quite reasonable, The anti-privatization ”movement” does not seem to extend much beyond the ranks of the ALP and union offices. And I don’t see how pointing that out encapsulates the propaganda orientation of Socialist Alternative. Although I do look forward to the day when Tom does encapsulate that in a statement.

However, Bob’s charges against SA of propagandism, sectarianism and ”student vangardism” do ring true. But do you think, Bob, that it is enough to lay the charges, present the evidence and hand down a guilty verdict? Let’s look at the philosophy and reasoning behind these crimes.

A better understanding may help mitigate some of the damage. The history of the Inernational Socialist Tendency, from which SA is derived, is one of a constant tussle between activism and propagandism. Or opportunism and sectarianism, to use the negative terrminology. A small revoultionary socialist group working in a relatively stable country like Australia is always going to have a hard time growing or gaining much influence.

Their choices always seem to boil down to throwing themselves into the struggle in whatever crack or corner it can be found (activism). Or concentrating on sharpening their political theory while winning individuals on the basis of their ideas (propagandism).

Things are made even harder for the IST because of their theory of “socialism from below,” (in which I’m a firm believer) which distrusts union officaldom and electoral politcs in favour of grassroots or rank and file politics (in the estimation of the IST the most noble union office one can hold is that of shop steward.)

However, over the past 30 years or so the most consistant face of left politics has been bound up with electoral politics and union officaldom. The space in which revolutionaries have been able to operate has been quite small.

Socialist Alternative was born out of a split with the grandly named International Socialist Organisation (ISO) in 1995.

It is a cruel irony that the demise of the ISO began with the victory of the ALP in the “unwinable” election of 1993.

The fall of Stalinism in 1989-91 was the beginning of the glory days of the ISO. They threw themselves into the fight against the first Gulf War, the mass mobalisations against Jeff Kennett in Victoria (led by those treacheous union officials) and the threat of the coming John Hewson-led Liberal government, which forshadowed Australian Workplace Agreements and a goods and services tax.

They mostly did this in a principled and non-sectarian way and earned the respect of, and even recruited, many longstanding independent activists. For these short years, activism did not seem to be traded off against politics.

IST members these days would do well to look at this period and try to figure out what went right. What went wrong was that the ISO leadership interprited Paul Keating’s electoral victory as the begining of the fight against economic rationalism. It was in fact the end of it.

The fight that followed inside the ISO over “perspectives” and “the nature of the period” gave birth to Socialist Alternative. I was a founding member and stayed with this group for nine years. The SA view of the workers movement and the left in retreat and their estimation of their own humble resourses led them to form their “student perspective” (taken from the pre-split ISO), ie it was a waste of time trying to have an impact in the real world, but the microcosm of the world of student politics allowed them to punch above their weight and expand their modest base.

This worked, and under the circumstances I still believe that it was a sensible thing to do. More than a decade on, the SA leadership still sees this as a winning formula while waiting for the upsurge that will take them from propaganda group to small party.

They have, after all, now become the second largest socialist group after the DSP (or Socialist Alliance if you want to call them that) and are still recruiting members through their propaganda (although often losing them just as fast).

While the ISO, far less sectarian, became a rump and suffered another split (recently re-fused, which gives this drunken ranter some hope in the future of the IST). The sectarianism of SA today is an unforseen consequence of the student-propaganda perspective.

It has created a positive feedback loop in which the group, trying to hold firm to its principle of socialism from below, shields itself from treacherous reformist politics. And in the absence of any revoultionary struggle, it feeds on a strict diet of past glories.

I left SA in 2004 when this became aparrent to me (neatly dovetailing with the birth of my first son). Alarm bells started ringing again for me recently when people I knew, (independently of anything I had said or done) had become involved in SA.

I was extreamly happy and amazed, hoping that maybe their finding resonance in socialist politics was a straw in the wind. They soon removed themselves from the group, however, (about a year or so apart) complaining how insular and student-oriented it was, and of the expected heavy workload.

The worst was a workmate of mine, an electrian just out of the Navy, who was told by a young cadre that he has to stand up to his boss and tell him to get fucked, because he had to work night shift instead of going to an SA branch meeting. Of course, this bloke, who had taken submarines down to 300m, did not take this well and never returned their calls.

I’m not sure how to break this positive feedback loop. I once suggested that instead of selling their publication at a workers rally, they only bring it out after engaging with a member of the crowd, otherwise all they would do was hide behind it.

This was met with the usual good humour that was reserved for the only blue collar member of the branch. In theory, when there is an upsurge in the class struggle, the group should expand rapidly. But it will take time for people who have learned their politcs in a culture such as this to learn how to relate to real people.

Chav May 11, 2008 Darren, I think you are asserting a division between students and “real people” that just isn’t as relevant as it was, well, even when I went to Uni more than 15 years ago. Most students these days work as well as study. They have experience of workplace culture and politics.

It wasn’t for nothing that the union movement used examples of young people being ripped off by AWAs in their advertising campaign during the last federal election. Also, white collar workers make up an important component of the working class in this country and SA has a number of white collar workers in its ranks.

Liz Thompson May 11, 2008 SA may have a number of white collar workers in its ranks, but what does it do with them? According to one long-term member, in a debate I went to between the Socialist Party and SA about the role of the party, (or something similar) who I think is no longer a student (though the student incubation period for SA members seems to be directly inverse to the shift in the rest of the student population — you just can’t stay at uni for nine years doing an arts degree any more without consequences, yet members of SA who I remember from my first year at uni 10 years ago are still taking up elected positions in the National Union of Students bureaucracy), the members sell magazines and circulate SA petitions in their workplace.

This is not the same thing as engaging in discussions with your workmates about workplace issues and no member at this meeting was seemingly able to articulate a strategy of workplace organising beyond this. The fact that most students work as well as study is not an answer to the accusation that SA members’ experience and activity as students is not necessarily preparing them for organising in their workplace.

Chav, May 12, 2008 (Sigh) — When you’re the biggest and the best, everyone wants a piece of ya. One anecdote a political analysis does not make.

Wombo May, 12, 2008 Neither the biggest, nor, obviously, the best Chav, (although that depends where you’re sitting, of course). But a one-liner comeback does not a response make. I’d hope that it’s an individual thing, rather than collective, but I have had long-term Socialist Alternative members walk past and mutter “Stalinist” at me (and had them describe the DSP and the Socialist Alliance — because the DSP is in it — as ”Stalinist” as well).

From Socialist Alternative, knowing (and hearing) how they organise, this almost beggars belief. More importantly, it appears to be indicative of the political level of much of its membership, who regularly fall back to either a Punch-and-Judy response, or scream “Stalinist” to the wind (or if they’re newer members, they get rapidly shepherded away from any ideas that might pollute their minds) whenever anyone challenges them politically. A variant on that of “we’re bigger than everyone else, so there” (especially when it isn’t true) does nobody any favours.

Chav May 12, 2008 “but I have had long-term Socialist Alternative members walk past and mutter “Stalinist” at me (and had them describe the DSP and the Socialist Alliance — because the DSP is in it — as “Stalinist” as well).”

Where there’s smoke there is usually fire, Wombo. If you want to consort with an organisation that thinks that Stalin/Mao/Ho/Castro’s Red Army can march into Eastern Europe or ”besiege the cities from without” and overthrow capitalism and who by thus thinking earn themselves the justified title of “Stalinists by default” then be my guest.

Just don’t be surprised if you get caught in the crossfire when they are quite rightly labeled as such. “We’re bigger than everyone else, so there (especially when it isn’t true) — ” Paper membership doesn’t count, champ. But enough of this, I’m keeping you from organising more stunning electoral victories.

Tony I, May 13, 2008 Hi Chav. The DSP never supported Stalin or Mao. I’ve heard Resistance members coming back from Socialist Alternative meetings and reporting that they’d been told that the DSP supported the Tiananmen Square massacre: the reality is that we had a correspondent in the student protests and for week after week condemnation of the Chinese Stalinist government was on the front page of Direct Action, the newspaper we had then.

The point I’m making is, disagree with us by all means but putting words into your rivals’ mouths is exactly what’s wrong with the Australian left.

As for Cuba, “besieging the cities from without” is not what the July 26 movement did, in our reading of history. Disagree with us by all means but, please, do not bother with polemicising against what we never said.

Chav May 13, 2008 In 1999 the DSP announced that it had discovered that China was a capitalist state and had been since September 1992. This discovery was decided by a majority of delegates attending the DSP’s 18th conference on January 5-10, 1999. Up until January 4, 1999, according to the second edition of the DSP program, the DSP maintained that China was, alternatively a “workers’ state” (p126) or a “socialist state” (p146).”

What kind of socialist doesn’t support either a “workers’ state” or indeed a “socialist state”? And it was Mao that created this state, therefore —

Tony I, May 14, 2008 I think “deformed workers state” is the term. Read Trotsky’s “The Revolution Betrayed” if you want a detailed explanation as to why socialists might classify a state as post-capitalist but at the same time support popular struggles against the regime.

Chav May 14, 2008 Tony I, I’ve read it, at least twice. Great book but often just plain wrong, unless you agree with the idea that a force other than the revolutionary working class can overthrow capitalism. If you do, then I don’t see how that makes your outlook different to the Stalinists.


Ablokeimet, May 5, 2008 (comment on Leftwrites) Well, this Anarchist is impressed by the Labor Party conference outcome. I’ve been watching the campaign against electricity privatisation from the distance of Melbourne, though with a source or two in NSW. Bob’s analogy with the 1950s is not bad, but there’s a better one. What we’ve witnessed is the sort of thing that happened during the 1917 split over conscription.

The rank and file of the party and affiliated unions, using their (often flawed) democratic processes, have given the party tops a defeat over something both think non-negotiable. In the process, the traditional machine operatives of the party were placed in an unusual position. They were squeezed between the pressures of the membership and the government until they had to declare a side — and, faced with the virtually unanimous fury of the ranks, they caved in to the membership.

What we’ve seen is a massive movement of the working class. True, it hasn’t been over the sort of issue that capital-R revolutionaries like me would have expected, and the position taken up by the ALP Conference is itself open to great criticism, but these issues are secondary. The workers of NSW have drawn a line in the sand. They have said, “No matter whether we agree with how far you’ve taken us already, we’re not letting you go any further.”

The question now is “What next?” As Bob notes, the next battle is in caucus. What must happen now is that the party, having declared its position, states that anyone who votes against the platform is a rat and will be expelled. This will put maximum pressure on wavering caucus members to force them to decide that the path that results in least damage is to keep the cabinet rump as small as possible.

It’s theoretically possible that Iemma could lose in caucus and still get the privatisation through parliament. If he and Costa can round up enough rats, the Libs could swing the vote his way. I’m not privy to the thinking of the open representatives of big business, however, so I won’t predict which way they’ll jump.

This battle probably counts as justification for Bob Gould’s half-century in the Labor Party. It’s the exception rather than the rule, however, so there’s no way I’ll be following suit (if it was the rule, I’d have to re-examine my Anarchism critically). I’ve learnt the evils of sectarianism well enough, however, to know that when someone in the ALP stands up for the right thing, we need to support them on that issue. So hats off to Bob for fighting the good fight, and to all the other Labor Party members who said “No pasaran”.

Tom O’Lincoln, May 6, 2008 (comment on Leftwrites) “What we’ve seen is a massive movement of the working class.”

I’m also impressed with what has happened in NSW, but if we are going to talk about a massive movement of the working class, rather than a mobilisation of party activists and union officials, that would need to manifest itself in the streets and in industry. Just such a movement is probably still needed to stop Iemma’s privatisation plans.