Bob Gould, 2008

Cranks and enemies
The popular front between Roger Raven, Mike Berrell, Bob Carr, Paul Keating and the World Socialist Web Site

Source: Ozleft, May 7, 2008
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

I have just come back from the semi-regular Wednesday evening meeting of the Power for the People Labor Party rank and file committee, set up to oppose the government’s electricity privatisation push. About 40 Labor Party members were present and 25 or so others, including people from the DSP majority, Solidarity, Socialist Alternative, some Greens and others.

The meeting mapped out, in general terms, further development of the campaign against electricity privatisation, and the Labor Party members met afterwards separately to chart our further agitation in the ALP, in some detail. A sensible and rather politically ingenious mood prevailed in both meetings.

The struggle against electricity privatisation is still growing, and all the elements on the far left can see that, including some who’ve been stridently hostile to the Labor Party in the past.

Then I got back from the meeting and had a look at my email and Ozleft to find another know-all missive from the know-all cyber-warrior Michael Berrell, semi-Stalinist World Socialist Web Site hanger-on.

Berrell, who I’ve never seen active in any way in the labour movement, asks me to admit that the WSWS has been right all along about the electricity privatisation struggle. I’m sorry to disillusion him, but these days the WSWS is rarely correct about anything. If they ever agreed with me about anything, I’d be seriously worried.

Berrell also slimes all over the semi-Stalinist crank from WA Roger Raven, who slandered me on the Green Left Weekly website a while back with the very serious accusation that I was an agent provocateur.

This raving Raven is a self-appointed expert on all things political, particularly these days on the NSW labour movement. (I’d be very grateful if this character Raven could give a bit of an outline of his political activity so we could have some understanding of his role in the labour movement and where he’s coming from. Of course, he has never volunteered anything like that.)

Berrell quotes Raven at length and points to the deathless words of the WSWS. His story and that of Raven and the WSWS are essentially the same: all Laborites are no good, this current struggle is not a struggle at all but a conspiracy of all the participants to betray the masses, and of course the elements that active people in the labour movement now call the GMT (Governor Macquarie Tower) Ministerial Mafia, will inevitably win the struggle.

Berrell’s past predictions about electoral results, which he presents regularly like some sort of crazy oracle, have rarely been right, and now he’s confidently predicting the outcome of an election that’s three years away.

Politically speaking, this bloke is a hopeless clown sitting at a keyboard. He wouldn’t know a mass struggle if he fell over one on a dark night. He clearly indicates that in the next state election he’ll cast an ultimate preference vote for the Liberals, because he wants to throw out the existing government. Of course, the only way to do that, in his cracked cosmology in which the Labor Party is a frozen monolith not subject to internal political differentiation of any significance, is to vote Liberal.

Anyone who proclaims, even indirectly, that they’re going to vote Liberal, immediately becomes my political enemy. In the long Irish nationalist and labour movement tradition that produced me and others, there’s considerable tolerance of different points of view within the broad framework of the struggle, but people who cross over to the enemy side are always regarded as traitors, and there’s no political mercy for them.

Disagreement and discussion is normal and necessary and there’s a certain tolerance for people who wander away or get confused, but in my tradition the political attitude to traitors is utterly merciless.

The semi-Stalinist Raven warns the DSP against having anything to do with the Labor Party, the trade union leadership or any Laborites in general. His story is essentially the same as Berrell’s but dished out in even more oracular fashion, and with absolutely no acknowledgment of differentiation, centrism or the real dynamics of any mass upsurge or serious struggle. Everything to do with the existing labour movement is poisonous and must be smashed, according to Raven. (I’d love to see what this creature actually looks like.)

Raven’s attitude to the trade unions and their existing leaderships is like that of the WSWS. It’s also very nearly identical to the attitude outlined in the past couple of days in the bourgeois media by Paul Keating and Bob Carr.

The essential thesis common to Berrell, Raven, Keating, Carr and the misnamed World Socialist Web Site, is that the unions are obsolete and that by some means or other their political influence in the Labor Party should be ended. This approach is peddled by all five at exactly the time when the united NSW union movement is emerging as the main obstacle to privatisation of the electricity network. Having the unions in the same corner emboldens the Labor rank and file mightily in their struggle against Iemma and Costa.

Meanwhile, it’s as plain as a pikestaff that the ruling class fully supports the main aim of this five-way coalition: to push the unions out of the Labor Party.

Every time I see the WSWS calling itself socialist, or even Trotskyist, these days I’m sickened by this insult to the socialist and Trotskyist tradition of support for and participation in all popular struggles. The WSWS actually irritates me the most because of its spurious claim to Trotskyism. Its core argument is that workers should leave the unions, the whole of the Labor Party and labour movement including the rank and file is a massive conspiracy to betray, and completely eccentrically, the whole world focuses on them.

In the course of this political orientation they deliver half of any votes they can influence to the Liberals. These people are political traitors to the working class. It’s comical to see them wandering around when occasionally they appear at working class demonstrations or other activities. They hover around trying to trap the unwary into making statements that they can twist into their mad story of universal betrayal by everyone but themselves.

The WSWS bloke who was reporting on the Labor conference is someone I’ve known for a very long time. He has physical features very like those of the vile Liberal Kevin Andrews. He and Andrews usually wear dark clothing and they adopt the ponderous demeanour and speaking style of two prosperous undertakers.

This bloke was whingeing on the first day of the conference that he hadn’t been given a press pass. I agreed with him that was bad. Setting aside the WSWS’s reactionary political line, he had a reasonable point about having a democratic right to report.

He was, however, incapable of understanding that rather than the universal conspiracy against his outfit that he postulated, the more likely reason that he didn’t get a pass was that just about everyone in the labour movement was deeply angry with the WSWS’s thoroughly pro-Tory standpoint and behaviour. In matters of that sort people around the labour movement aren’t exactly turn-the-other-cheek Christian saints.

When he was insisting that I take up his cause immediately as a matter of principle, I agreed it was bad but I tried to explain that I had other things on my mind of somewhat greater importance.

The WSWS reporter had also approached Doug Cameron, whingeing in the same way and apparently Cameron also agreed it was a bit crook that he hadn’t been given a pass, but he also had things of considerably greater importance on his mind than the democratic rights of a pro-Liberal website with a fake socialist label.

When this bloke wrote up the conference, part of this weaving of a web of conspiracy to betray around the whole of the labour movement, including its rank and file, was the politically lunatic proposition that there was a conspiracy to take off the anti-Iemma T-shirts on the Sunday so as not to offend Kevin Rudd. How mad can these people get?

The more mundane and entirely natural reason for this had escaped him. Most people don’t normally wear T-shirts at Labor conference. They put them on as a political statement in the big debate. When they get back to their homes or accommodation, they take them off. They’re a bit sweaty anyway, and they quite often wear different clothes the next day when other issues are being discussed.

In fact, there were still quite a few yellow T-shirts scattered around the conference on the Sunday, worn by fairly hard-core agitators like my friend Jenny. Most people, though, left the T-shirts at home for entirely normal reasons. In the mad mental world inhabited by these crazed cyber-warriors, natural explanation will never do. Everything is part of the global conspiracy.

I’d recommend to the ranks of all the small socialist groups, who despite tactical differences I regard as comrades in this struggle, that they study the four seminal books by Farrell Dobbs on the teamster struggle in Minneapolis, in the midwest of the United States between 1932 and 1945.

If they actually want to learn anything, I’d recommend the same books to Berrell, raving Raven and the antisocialist WSWS, but I won’t hold my breath waiting for them to read anything that’s likely to help them with current tactical and strategic matters.

Dobbs’s books describe how a small group of revolutionary socialists in Minneapolis got a toehold in the teamsters’ union at the beginning of the revival of the labour movement after the worst impact of the Great Depression.

Initially, in a rising arc of struggle they had to fight had against an entrenched bureaucracy in the union, which they did in an exemplary way. At no stage, however, did they treat the traditions of the teamsters’ union with contempt and they didn’t treat the bureaucracy of the union as an undifferentiated reactionary mass. They treated it as a bureaucracy within the workers’ movement with contradictory features.

Circumstances forced them to fight hard against the bureaucracy at the start of the struggle. Dobb and his comrades were tactically adroit, and over time they found it useful to develop blocs with this or that section of the middle ranks of the union bureaucracy. In the course of the struggle they even became friends with some of these people.

In the course of the struggle, one of their previous opponents, a man called Corcoran, became one of the socialists’ staunchest allies, until he was murdered by gangsters in the midst of the struggle.

As the struggle developed, the socialists even tamed Dan Tobin’s centralised national bureaucracy in Minneapolis.

As the depression lifted further, the Minneapolis Trotskyists, with their newly developed allies, became the unquestioned leaders of the union in the midwest and developed the Over the Road strategy to organise long-distance truckers, which even changed the attitude of the hard-headed right-wing bureaucrat, Tobin, towards them.

Tobin came to rely on the Minneapolis teamsters as the spearhead of the struggle to extend the industrial influence of the union and massively increase its membership. Many of the 40 or 50 revolutionary socialists became officials of the teamster union in the midwest, as the most reliable tactical thinkers.

Tobin even put Farrell Dobbs on the national staff of the union in Indianapolis and in his conservative, bureaucratic way became reasonably friendly with Dobbs.

This relationship was disrupted by the onset of the World War II, when Tobin and his more conservative colleagues became rabid patriots and supported class peace as part of the war effort, while the socialists stuck to their guns, advancing class struggle.

Gains that workers, socialists, communists, Trotskyists, militants, anarchists and others achieve in struggle are never really lost, and Dobbs’s books deserve careful study by serious socialists interested in activity in any labour movement, particularly for the question of how to relate to any kind of leftward-moving centrism when it develops.

People like Berrell, Raven and the misnamed WSWS are utterly hostile to this kind of approach.

Tools of the ruling class

May 8, 2008, Ozleft

In their increasingly frenzied dismissal of the whole of the Labor Party ranks, the anti-socialist so-called World Socialist Web Site peddles the same line as Imre Salusinszky and others in the bourgeois media that the post-conference Labor caucus meeting on Tuesday endorsed the Iemma-Costa position on privatisation.

These purportedly left-wing journalists are not at all interested in examining, or even noting, the struggle that’s continuing in the labour movement, including in the Labor caucus.

On Tuesday the joint pressure of the left and right unions and the Labor conference decision got the number of anti-privatisation MPs in the caucus up to about 28, which was short of a majority and despite the almost universal discontent of the Labor Party branches, the left ministers declined to vote in caucus against the premier, arguing that they’d cross over when a majority was achieved.

A number of people, including some in quite senior positions, strongly pointed out to the left ministers that if they shifted, those who were wavering might follow their lead, creating a majority, but the ministers still declined to take the risk and their position is being shored up by some left figures in the federal government.

In the face of that situation, the 28 who were committed to support the conference decision, and their supporters at different levels in the Labor Party, considered it politic not to press the vote in the caucus at that point. The failure to insist on a vote is a reasonable subject for tactical discussion among comrades, but it’s absolutely clear the 28 did not endorse the pro-privatisation position of the government leaders.

Reactionary cranks such as the WSWS take up the story of the bourgeois press and Iemma wholesale, because it suits their rather psychotic view of the world. By definition, from their point of view, no struggles can take place in the Labor Party.

The WSWS can be assured that there are plenty of struggles going on all over the place, in union executives and offices, in Labor Party branches around the state, in the Labor Party head office and among Labor politicians of the better sort, and their staff.

The anti-socialist WSWS is acting as a publicity agent for the ruling class, using its little pea-shooter to peddle the story that the struggle is already lost, which has been their story since the struggle began.

The latest article spells out even more clearly the WSWS’s basic view that the Labor Party and the unions, including the rank and file, are completely bankrupt. Once again, this coincides with the current tactical position of the ruling class. It’s the same story advanced by Keating and Carr in The Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald, with the addition of a threadbare attempt at some left cover: “The movement against the power privatisation plan can only go forward to the extent that it makes a conscious political break with these bureaucracies and begins to advance an internationalist and socialist program.” That’s so threadbare it’s completely transparent.

The WSWS even brazenly peddles the same story of the ruling class, Carr and Keating, that “defence of the status quo in the NSW power industry is untenable”.

The thing that’s wrong with that claim, which is the core argument of the ruling class in this battle, is that the trade unions, the overwhelming majority of Labor branches and the better Labor politicians, both left and right, don’t think it’s untenable at all, as Bernie Riordan points out very effectively in this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald. They’re conducting a vigorous campaign to retain the existing arrangements.

The WSWS bunch, insofar as they can influence anyone from their website, in their position totally outside the labour movement, are doing a job for the ruling class, which is really their only practical political role these days. All their guff about the whole program of the socialist revolution is just window dressing.

When the WSWS rejects the Labor Party and the unions, however imperfect they may be as vehicles for struggle, and counterposes to them a pile of political abstractions to which they say the workers should turn, that’s so obviously impossible that ordinary people can’t comprehend it. It’s a total appeal to spontaneity among the masses, which in the end doesn’t exist.

With this particular small bunch of anti-socialist renegades, it’s necessary to look at their tactical approach. They give half the votes they can influence (happily a very small number) to the Liberals, and they call for the smashing of the unions and the Labor Party, which are the only physical obstacles to the rule of capital with no constraints.

If there hadn’t been a union revolt and a revolt in the Labor branches against electricity privatisation there would be no public expression of the massive popular discontent with the privatisation.

Michael Berrell’s WSWS mates are outright tools of the ruling class.

The best and the worst

May 9, 2008, Ozleft

A crisis in the workers movement and a battle as fundamental as the one that’s going on in the Labor Party at the moment brings out the best and the worst in people.

Most of the far left has responded in a positive way to these events, with the notable exception of inveterate eccentrics such as Michael Berrell, the semi-Stalinist Roger Raven and the thoroughly anti-socialist World Socialist Web Site.

Most others on the left are trying in their various ways to comment on, and even influence, the events in useful ways. The tone and calibre of discussion on the far left has improved markedly, and people are by and large arguing their corner in a sensible way. I hope this continues.

This is the spirit in which I hope my response to Dave Riley’s comments on the Green Left discussion list will be taken.

Riley tries to draw an artificial distinction between myself and Marcus Strom, saying that I’m in the struggle and Strom isn’t, which is quite unfair to Marcus, who has been to some meetings of the rank and file committee and has raised the relevant issues fairly sharply in his Labor Party branch and state electorate council. What more does Dave Riley require of him?

Marcus was also present for a large part of the Labor conference, moving around as I was, discussing the issues and trying to strengthen the opposition to the government’s privatisation push. He and I have a different style of writing about the struggle and we approach it from slightly different angles, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

On the key question that Riley challenges in Strom’s analysis — the fact that he relates the question of electricity privatisation to the obvious push of the ministers and their staff to strip the conference of its powers and push the unions out of the Labor Party — I agree with Strom completely.

In his analysis, Strom quite properly points to the fact that this assault on the unions is central to the project of the pro-privatisation ministers, and he raises the question at some length, which is necessary.

I have a slight disagreement of emphasis on the affiliation question. I think Strom is correct to raise the question of democracy in the selection of union delegates to the Labor conference, but that’s a secondary question in the current battle to preserve union affiliation to the Labor Party.

In fact, I’d go a little further than Strom. I believe there should be a campaign in all presently unaffiliated unions to have them affiliate, with democratic internal arrangements about the selection of delegates if it can be achieved, and even if it can’t be achieved in the short term, we should still push for affiliation of each union at the full strength to which it is entitled under the Labor Party’s rules.

Riley speculates at some length about disaffiliating unions and creating some new progressive, presumably mass, political organisation to which unions could affiliate.

With respect, there’s not the slightest evidence any of that is likely to happen, either in the short term or the medium term, even if we were to be defeated in the struggle over electricity privatisation — and that’s not going to become clear for quite some time.

The government is now talking about not being able to consummate any sale until much later in the year, which gives us considerable scope, still, for a mass campaign in the community at large and to continue the campaign in the unions and the Labor Party.

With the struggle just beginning, it’s not useful to make light-minded comments about the unions vacating the field by disaffiliating from the Labor Party.

It’s becoming clear that in the face of the enormous assault on us all, there’s a lot of hesitation among union officials and the better sort of state politicians about what to do next, and some people, including some in unions, are beginning to peddle the story that we’ve gone as far as we can and we should move on to other things. This story is coming from a minority who were always lukewarm about the struggle in any case, it seems to me. Some of them were looking for a half-acceptable deal right from the start.

Take it from me, however, that the bulk of the Labor ranks are as angry as ants about this question, they’re not about to vacate the field in the party, and they know lots of tricks within the Labor tradition about how to wear down their opponents. The bad guys in this situation also know a fair number of tricks, so it’s hardly surprising that we’re settling into a bit of trench warfare at this point.

The ruling class has nakedly used some of its assets in the labour movement to try to bludgeon the Labor ranks and the trade unions and their leaders into submission by the public threat of breaking the political power of the unions and pushing them out of the Labor Party entirely. That has raised the stakes in this battle for everyone, including most of the union leaders, who still don’t seem at all likely to go quietly even if there’s a certain amount of weakening in some quarters at this point.

For Dave Riley to be raising union disaffiliation from the Labor Party at the moment is an ultra-sectarian political error, and I hope he snaps out of it quickly.

I present all these ideas in the spirit of necessary, sharp, comradely discussion, rather than silly point-scoring, which we should avoid.

Anyone who watched the NSW version of the ABC’s Stateline this evening (Friday) might have noted the demeanour of Rodney Cavalier, who was wheeled in as some kind of expert to push the view that the victory of Iemma and company was inevitable. Cavalier is a well-known advocate of dramatically reducing union influence in the Labor Party, and a general supporter of privatisation and a Blairite New Labour kind of development in Australia.

When he was minister for education in a Labor government a few years ago Cavalier’s relations with the generally militant Teachers Federation were poisonous in the extreme.

Nevertheless, Cavalier, who has been around the Labor Party for a long time and is a bit of a Labor historian, was extremely cagey on Stateline. He clearly favoured stripping the Labor conference of its power to direct governments, but he’s too much of a Labor historian to be very confident of achieving that in the short term.

While Cavalier did the job he was wheeled out to do, up to a point, he hedged a bit on the likely outcome, and he was very wise to do so.

One of the problems our reactionary opponents have is that their arguments for the sale are politically weak. They make little economic sense, particularly given the current state of the capitalist world market.

The privatisers’ position amounts to not much more than the traditional neoliberal argument that there’s no alternative, which has never been true.

The privatisation supporters say they need to tidy up the national electricity grid so NSW is removed as an obstacle to pushing up electricity prices as far as the ruling class requires in these difficult economic times, and as restrictions on carbon emissions are imposed.

Every month the struggle goes on, that kind of argument gets more threadbare, and they know it. They’re forced to wheel out a series of superannuated Labor right-wingers, almost all of whom are now tied in with the big end of town, and with interests that stand to benefit in some way from a fire sale of the electricity assets.

The longer we can present serious obstacles to this development, the harder it gets for them.

Most sober bourgeois economic commentators are pointing out that the economic problems of global capitalism, which affect many of the dodgy privatising entities, are really just beginning.

These dodgy economic entities are likely to try to get in and out fast, strip some assets including any carbon trading concessions, and leave the mess to someone else to sort out.

The longer the struggle goes on, problems such as the imminent bankruptcy of the Lane Cove tunnel become increasingly evident, as the government will most likely be forced to bail it out at massive cost to the taxpayer.

In this context, all the obstacles we can create are useful, and the bad guys are desperate to push the unions out of the way.

There’s not much sign of the unions weakening so far, and the sheer institutional influence of the unions in the Labor Party is still a powerful obstacle. The unions contain a network of officials, many of whom are politically and tactically convinced the privatisation is a bad thing. It’s hard to imagine John Robertson, Matt Thistlethwaite, Ben Kruse or any number of others weakening very much, despite the enormous pressure they’re under from old relationships that exist in the labour movement.

It’s my very long-standing view that light-minded chatter about disaffiliating unions from the Labor Party is always bad, and it’s in conflict with the whole experience of the Australian labour movement. At this stage, and for the foreseeable future, in this sort of struggle, such talk only plays into the hands of big capital and its representatives, past and present, in the ministerial faction of the Labor Party.