Bob Gould, 2008
Source: Ozleft, May 28, 2008
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter
On Sunday evening Mick Armstrong came into my shop, as he does when he’s in Sydney, worked his way through my Marxist shelves picking up all kinds of things for his personal bookstall, which he conducts at Socialist Alternative events in Melbourne, and I gave him the usual discount as a pretty good customer. The arrangement suits him and it suits me, and we had the usual desultory exchange of political ideas.
I took the mickey out of him a bit for the way he has raised the notion of propagandism to high theory and I asked whether he would be willing to debate the ideas in his pamphlet on propagandism some time, and he said he would.
Mick was in Sydney for what has been billed on posters around Sydney as his national speaking tour on the events of May 1968 in France and worldwide, along with a comrade from a small socialist group in Italy.
The next day I read the rather unpleasant and totally reactionary opinion piece in The Australian by the former editor of Australian Left Review, David Burchall, pouring hostility all over the events of May 1968 and the generation of 1968, of which I’m one.
That tipped the balance, and I decided to go to Mick’s meeting and have a bit of a look at Socialist Alternative on its home ground. I thought I might also have my five minutes or so of discussion from the floor on the issues raised by May 1968 and the events of the whole period from 1965 to 1972, during which I was a rather energetic participant and was arrested about nine times, mainly for demonstration offences but also over censorship matters. (Incidentally, it seems I’m going to get 10 minutes of interview time on the current censorship upheaval, related to the past, on the James Valentine Show on ABC Radio around 1pm on Wednesday, May 28.)
Sydney people know that I can usually squeeze a pretty good argument into five minutes from the floor at any meeting, and I was confident I’d be able to put forward a bit different slant to Mick.
When I got to the meeting I was favourably impressed by the size and composition of the audience. The small meeting room in the Newtown Neighbourhood Centre contained about 55 people a fair proportion of them apparently first-year university students, and they included a sprinkling of people of colour. I hadn’t seen most of the crowd before, even in Socialist Alternative red flag contingents at demonstrations, and I don’t really expect to see a lot of them again, due to the revolving door nature of Socialist Alternative membership and recruitment.
No other socialist groups were present that I recognised and there was one bloke who I know pretty well: a syndicalist cab driver who, unusually, is also a Labor Party member.
The meeting kicked off with a report for a minute or two by a rather gloomy looking bloke I’ve seen around Socialist Alternative, who it emerges is a school teacher. He reported on Socialist Alternative’s intervention at the recent teachers’ stopwork meeting, claiming that the group had sold 75 copies of the Socialist Alternative magazine at the stopwork (long experience has taught me to discount claimed sales at such events by about half) and he explained that the group had told the teachers how the Labor Party betrayed.
The thing that struck me as curious was that he at no stage explained what the teachers’ dispute was about. One might think that for the education of the comrades some knowledge of the dispute might have been useful. In Socialist Alternative’s unimaginative world, that’s apparently not important, only the number of magazine sales.
The Italian speaker went on for about 40 minutes, which was a bit on the painful side, as he wasn’t very fluent in English and his political conclusions seemed pretty obscure. At the end of his speech he got dutiful explosive applause, led from the platform.
Then Mick spoke, also for about 40 minutes. His speech was reasonably rousing, although pretty general and he didn’t really make any serious observations about the strategic and tactical issues for Australia posed by the events of May 1968 and 1969, other than very general ones.
Mick himself is a rather unlikely candidate for the role of cult leader, but in a way he has clearly become one, which has got me beat a bit. He got uproarious applause.
Then the chair of the meeting gave a little package of Socialist Alternative books to the Italian comrade as a memento and the meeting was closed.
To say the least, I was gobsmacked. That was partly personal irritation, being the only person present who had been a reasonably significant participant in the events of that time in Australia, but the personal insult was not the most important point. What got under my skin politically was the graphic way, demonstrated at that meeting, a propaganda group actually operates in the rounded way that Mick theorises in his recent pamphlet.
A discussion of May 1968, which was a rolling, global revolutionary event marked by popular assemblies and an enormous clash of ideas, strategic conceptions and a whole ferment of argument and debate, can’t be reduced to a totally ritualised formula at a meeting.
Socialist Alternative is turning into a political replica of the Hillsong Church. It is propagandism gone totally loopy &$8212; a hermetically sealed world from which serious argument appears to be excluded.
It’s possible that, had I not been there, the meeting might have had some fairly controlled discussion, but from the meeting organisers’ point of view my presence seems to have precluded that. That little universe is clearly so tense that the presence of even one socialist outsider sends the little hive into total defence mode.
I got up at the back of the meeting and said surely they couldn’t have such a farcical performance without a discussion and I repeated my point loudly as I left.
Two young women followed me into the street and one, possibly speaking for the other one, said she had been to a few Socialist Alternative meetings and they were all pretty much like that. She shook her head in amused disbelief. She said she recognised me as “the bloke from the bookshop” and volunteered that she had read my critique of Socialist Alternative on the web and she agreed with my view.
Despite the fact that I’m writing this in a mood of exasperation and irritation, I’m also rather glad that I attended the meeting because I have the very distinct feeling that I got a very good view of the kind of protracted moment that Socialist Alternative is going through as it transforms from a socialist group into a kind of cult with a most unlikely cult leader.
I repeat my offer to Mick. Why don’t we set up some kind of public discussion or debate on, say, a whole Sunday afternoon, and discuss the merits or demerits of socialist propagandism as a system, with all comers invited.
This item was posted and discussed on two blogs, Leftwrites and Ozleft, both indepentent left forums. Leftwrites was started by some former members of the International Socialist Organisation and Socialist Alternative. It disappeared suddenly and without explanation from the web about March 2009 after the original administrators handed it over to another individual. Because some of Bob Gould’s comments occurred in the context of the Leftwrites discussion, that discussion has been included here.
Anthony Main, May 28, 2008 (From Ozleft) Bob, Good luck with the debate. Or more precisely, good luck getting Socialist Alternative to actually discuss the ideas raised in Mick Armstrong’s book. The Socialist Party challenged SA to a debate a few months back and this did not happen.
We wanted to discuss their idea of building a propaganda group in isolation from the class — as they are doing. Unfortunately none of their members really defended the idea of building a propaganda group, instead they all came along and spoke one after another on broad parties!
It was all very weird. They way they spoke you wouldn’t have known that the CWI is involved in more of these formations than anyone else and has written as much as most on the issue. If I didn’t know better I would say that the plan from SA was not to discuss the issue at all.
It was not as weird, in my opinion, as the fact that it seems none of their members actually question the propaganda group idea, or as you have noted above the lack of democratic discussion in the organisation.
I attended one session of their recent Marxism Conference and the situation was similar to the one you outline above. The session was on China and one of their young leaders chaired it. Usually this would suffice but in this case they also had Mick co-chairing the meeting, only calling in pre-planned speakers.
The Chinese guest spoke poorly and outlined some fairly negative perspectives for struggle in China, he didn’t put a position about basic questions like the state of the unions and didn’t really answer any of the questions put to him. However, the SA members gave him rousing applause as if he was Trotsky returning from exile.
As you say, it felt more like I was in a Hillsong Church ceremony rather than a socialist meeting. The tragedy is that in my opinion SA are attracting some very good people who are unfortunately getting some very bad training.
Matt, May 28, 2008 (From Ozleft) It has been pretty clear to me for some time that Socialist Alternative has some similarities to evangelical churches. Regular prayer meetings/book readings and an unwavering faith in the principles of their organisation without critical discourse.
Also their complete inability to converse politically with those who would otherwise be closer to their ideology than most. No to mention the fact that the only national political forum in which they are able to legitimise themselves is the National Union of Students. At least Socialist Alliance contests state and federal elections.
As was stated above by Mr Main, no matter what the forum is, Socialist Alternative has a predetermined agenda presented by predetermined speakers who will stay on-message with super-human discipline. I have attended workshops on queer activism and the changes at Melbourne Uni where Socialist Alternative members have commandeered the meeting to forward the benefits of taking to the streets. It’s very disappointing to witness.
Chav, May 28, 2008 (From Leftwrites) It’s hard to know whether Bob Gould’s comments should be banned on the grounds of their pomposity and patently unwarranted self-aggrandisement or the vicious sectarianism they display. Either way, I’m calling for it. Moderators?
Jill, May 28, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Well, we can hardly ban people on the basis of being pompous or self-agrandising (otherwise a lot of us would be in trouble) … and I don’t see that it’s sectarian to write a criticism of a political group. You just don’t agree with what he says, Chav! Fair enough, too, but maybe you should argue against him, rather than calling for him to be banned.
I really hope that this site doesn’t become only about people criticising each other’s political organisations but if people want to have that discussion occasionally and keep it reasonably civil, I’m not going to stop it. If you don’t like the thread, start a better one!
Chav, May 28, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Jill, I agree it wouldn’t be sectarian if there actually was any political substance to the above post. But as it stands it consists primarily of personal invective and the liberal use of the label “cult”.
Jill, May 28, 2008 @ 10:11 (From Leftwrites) I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you but we only ban people as a last resort — usually if they repeatedly abuse other posters and show no interest in engaging in serious discussion. I can’t see that this applies to Bob Gould. If other people disagree, they can let me know.
Like I said, either argue against him or ignore him. But I don’t think repeatedly calling for him to be banned does you any favours.
Bob Gould, May 28, 2008 (From Ozleft) On Leftwrites, Chav has called for me to be banned because of the above post. What are the grounds: the fact that I argue with Socialist Alternative, make a few points and take the mickey out of the evangelical Christian-style atmosphere that appears to prevail at SA meetings?
Chav repeatedly accuses me of using uncomradely language, but at least my language is a big funny on occasions to help make a point.
Chav, appears to react in a choleric way to any political critique of Socialist Alternative. He has said in the past that I’m obsessed with SA. That’s farcical. I’ve only written about the organisation two or three times. If he was interested in anything but SA, he might have noticed I’ve written a large number of articles about various matters in labour movement politics, most recently about electricity privatisation in NSW.
I’ve also written critiques of the DSP leadership and commentaries on the crisis in that organisation. Does he expect Socialist Alternative to be exempted from political discussion in the workers movement?
Just to give this discussion a bit more context: was discussion from the floor allowed in other meetings in Mick Armstrong’s national tour, or was it only banned in Sydney (possibly because of my presence)? An answer to that would fill in a couple of pieces of the jigsaw.
DavidG, May 28, 2008 @ 10:13 (From Leftwrites) Looking at the calender I see it is the year 2008. The world is filled with conflict and wars and potential nuclear annihilation to say nothing of global warming and food shortages, etc.
What happened or didn’t happen in 1968 seems rather irrelevant now but, what happened or didn’t happen at a recent meeting attended by a few lefties is even less important and hardly worthy of a post.
Leftwrites, unfortunately, is a sleepy little forum, one that is hardly at the centre of furious, meaningful debate about political or social or economic change.
Posts like the above do little to help.
Dave Nadel May 28, 2008 @ 10:24 (From Leftwrites) I don’t know whether Chav is a member of Socialist Alternative, (actually I don’t know who Chav is) but if he is a member of Socialist Alternative, his call for Bob Gould to be banned rather proves Bob’s point.
I would have thought that the main point of Bob Gould’s article is that if you hold a public meeting you should not be afraid of contributions from the floor unless they become repetitive and disruptive.
Perhaps as somebody who is not a member of a small group and hasn’t been for years and who cannot see himself rejoining one until the objective conditions change substantially, I should butt out of this argument, but I enjoy reading and occasionally contributing to Leftwrites and if Chav’s rather precious attitude was to be accepted by the moderators I would find myself forced to give up on Leftwrites.
Jill, May 28, 2008 @ 10:47 (From Leftwrites) “What happened or didn’t happen in 1968 seems rather irrelevant now but, what happened or didn’t happen at a recent meeting attended by a few lefties is even less important and hardly worthy of a post.”
I take your point, DavidG, and Bob has a tendency to write posts that make people feel like that! But we’re in a bind, aren’t we? If we do talk about what happens at very small meetings, it seems hardly very important or relevant, as you say. But if we don’t talk about it, we engage in political activity without reflecting on it. There’s just as much danger in blogging abstractly about world events, as most people do, without trying to link it to political activity on the ground. We need to find a balance between obsessing about what’s going on in the Australian left and completely ignoring it.
BTW, everything is going to look irrelevant if you compare it to a world “filled with conflict and wars and potential nuclear annihilation”.
Chav, May 28, 2008 @ 10:54 (From Leftwrites) Dave, I think Bob has delusions of grandeur if he thinks there was no time alloted for discussion at the May 1968 meeting because his majesty was present.
As for Bob’s sectarian attacks on SA (“cult”, “loopy”, “Hillsong” etc, etc), repetitive and disruptive is exactly what they are, on Leftwrites anyway.
DavidG, May 28, 2008 @ 12:11 pm (From Leftwrites) As with most things, Jill, it’s a question of balance, deciding what is minutiae and what isn’t.
I visit Leftwrites now and again but I’m usually disappointed by the lack of energy and vitality it projects. A sleepy little forum seems to be somewhere near the mark but I’m sure this isn’t the objective.
How could we really get it going, make it a tour de force in the Australian blog world?
PS. I just posted an article on the Insight program last night. Would this kind of article be of interest to you?
Jill May 28, 2008 @ 12:18 pm (From Leftwrites) Sure — do you want an account so you can post it?
DavidG. May 28, 2008 @ 12:46 pm (From Leftwrites) You can take it straight off my blog if you want! Cheers.
Chav, May 28, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Bob, perhaps I overreacted in calling for you to be banned. However, I believe I have sufficient grounds to accuse you of uncomradely behaviour. When you start labeling other groups on the left as “cults” and describing their events as “prayer meetings” on a par with “Hillsong” evangelicals, you sound more like a cynical, right-wing bourgeois sociology academic than a comrade.
I fail to see how labeling political rivals on the Left in such a way is funny. And the reason I label it sectarian is your resort to name-calling and the near total lack of political substance in your post.
For your information there was also no time alloted for discussion after the May 1968 meeting in Melbourne. Not every event held by Socialist Alternative involves public discussion and I don’t see why it should. I’m sure you agree every group has the right to organise their events as they see fit?
Ex-Syndicalist Cab Driver, May 28, 2008 @ 6:36 pm (From Leftwrites) I must point out to Brother Gould that I am no longer a syndicalist cab driver who, unusually, is also a Labor Party member. Although still quite anarchic, I am these days a futilitarian cab driver, who, possibly also unusually, is a member of the Greens.
My eclectic political proclivities aside, I also was peeved by the absence of time allocated for questions/comments/statements/tales from the floor after Guru Mick’s lecture, “May 1968 For Dummies”.
However, unlike Brother Gould, who left the meeting in a bluster, I remained and lurked. Then, while the faithful knelt in silent prayer, I seized the moment. With Svejk-like insouciance, I secreted a packet of Cheezels and half a bottle of orange cordial in my trousers and made a stealthy, unnoticed departure.
I hope the Alternative comrades derive a lesson from this brazen expropriation by allocating plenty of question time at the 50th anniversary meeting in 2018. Be warned, I’ll be there … by the refreshments counter.
Tony Hartin, May 28, 2008 (From Leftwrites) I would much rather have heard some political comments on what the Italian speaker actually said. Fortunately he has an article in the current edition of SA mag.
With all the left electoral projects going on in Europe it’s important to draw on every lesson — that of Rifondazione being a particularly bad one.
Other than that I’m glad to hear SA had 55 (predominantly young people) along to its meeting and wish it all the best.
Mark P May 29, 2008 (From Leftwrites) I don’t really approve of casually labelling small left-wing organisations as “cults”. This kind of accusation generally comes from right-wingers trying to smear activist organisations of any stripe. Just as significantly, the defensive reaction such descriptions are almost guaranteed to generate is more likely to seal off the members of the group concerned from open debate than encourage them towards it.
That said, I think that Bob’s article makes some valid points. Making a habit of holding public meetings which don’t allow discussion from the floor is a very unhealthy practice. Of course, there will legitimately be exceptions, but in general allowing people to participate from the floor should be considered a norm. If the opinions of the top table can’t be challenged by ordinary participants then ideas can’t be compared, contrasted, re-evaluated and strengthened properly. What’s more it seems a remarkably “top down” way of organising for a group that makes big play of its commitment to “socialism from below”.
I also think that his observations about the hermetically sealed world of a certain type of propaganda group are of interest and deserve to be debated and discussed by people who are interested in building a socialist organisation.
Finally, I’m curious about the organisational affiliations of the Italian socialist who spoke at these meetings. Bob mentions that he was from a “small socialist group”, but doesn’t indicate which one. Neither does his article in the Socialist Alternative magazine.
imaTrotskyist, May 29, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Bob, i think you diminish what good argument you had by imposing your egotistical persecution complex on top of it. If you actually read back what you wrote, you paraphrase from a conversation with a young woman as you left the meeting in which she says that “all Socialist Alternative meeting are like that”. Surely thus, the only logical and rational answer was that it wasn’t your presence there that limited discussion, but instead a more worrying complete lack of political discussion at their meetings. To reiterate, that is the crux of the issue, not your blown-up sence of self-importance
Bob Gould May 29, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Tony Hartin says my comments about Mick Armstrong’s prayer meetings are non-political and I should stick to the politics.
Mick has just written a lengthy document raising the propaganda strategy of Socialist Alternative to the realms of high theory. Presumably Hartin thinks that Mick’s pamphlet is political, yet he objects to me subjecting part of the practice of Socialist Alternative to political scrutiny in light of Mick’s theory.
That’s the humbug you get from people who tend to regard the political orientation and practice of the current they favour as the centre of the political universe, and expect the rest of us to sit back and cop it without subjecting it to scrutiny and analysis.
Several people have objected to me saying Socialist Alternative seems to be developing cult-like aspects. Apparently I’m not supposed to say that, or to describe the evidence I see of that, on the basis of my observations at the 1968 meeting.
I’m sorry if those observations offend some adherents of Socialist Alternative, but they’re my observations. Readers of this list, some of whom would have had some experiences with Socialist Alternative, will just have to make their own assessments.
Another commentator accuses me of self-importance. That’s as may be. We’re all a bit self-important when we comment on political topics. It’s a bit self-important to think that our observations and ideas matter.
I think it’s extravagantly self-important for Mick to make a sweeping and rather general analysis of the events of 1968 and 1969 from his derived and literary point of view without allowing any framework for an interchange with me and perhaps others who may have attended his meetings elsewhere, who were participants in those events in Australia.
What got up my nose at the meeting, and what drove home to me the emerging element of cultism inherent in Mick’s overblown propaganda perspective, was the semi-religious atmosphere that prevailed at the meeting, which was deliberately designed as an exercise in what some call symbolic politics.
In that respect, given Chav’s assertion that no discussion was allowed at the Melbourne meeting either, May 1968 was turned into some kind of reified symbolic event from history to be interpreted strictly according to the theology of the St Pauls of the cult, in the way St Paul imposed his curious theology on the facts about the preceding primitive Christianity.
Marxist politics, in its more useful forms, is not such an exercise at all. The creative element in it, best exemplified in the life of a figure such as Lenin, is debate, controversy, argument and struggle with the aim of developing and educating socialists for struggles at hand and ahead.
The exaggerated closed-circle atmosphere revealed at that meeting seemed to be the antithesis of what’s required.
Another commenter said I couldn’t dispute the right of Socialist Alternative to decide on the form of its meetings. Of course I don’t, just as I don’t object to the Hillsong Church running their revivals the way they do, but it’s incumbent on me as a socialist to make a sensible appraisal of the political and organisational implications of the way meetings are run, and that was the purpose of my observations.
I repeat my proposal to Mick: let’s have a serious discussion about this type of propagandism, inviting all comers.
Darren May 29, 2008 (From Leftwrites) I have already responded to Bob’s critique of Socialist Alternitive (SA) on another thread. I thought that that post might bring forth some intellegent reflection on the ideas and actions of SA and the International Socialist Tendency in Oz. All it got was point-scoring between SA and the DSP until the DSP split and the “debate” decamped to another thread.
I think Chav’s imediate call to have Bob blocked as a troll and reducing Bob’s arguments to apolitical name-calling is telling in itself. Hillsong is a propaganda group (a very large and reactionary one). They have a set of ideas that they rally and build a cadre around. To the extent that they interact with the rest of the world it is only to push their world view. While it may be uncomfortable, it’s not hard to see the parallels between Hillsong and a socialist propaganda group. The question is why and how have Socialist Alternitive got to the point where they can be compared to Hillsong Church?
Tom O’lincoln touched on the nub of it in the DSP split thread when he said that the task of a small socialist group is the primitive accumulation of cadre. To build a small group around a set of ideas there’s no getting around this. But cadre cannot simply be accumulated, they must be developed and tested. Building cadre up on a diet of past glories, characterisations of reformists and union officals and dry theory is unhealthy and dangerous.
My motives for pointing this out are entirly comradely. I still believe in IST theory. But I am again moved by the experience of my workmate, who because of shift work was told by an SA cadre to stand up to his boss and tell him to get fucked so that he could go to an SA branch meeting. The sectarianism and totaly deluded world view behind this comment led me into thinking that Socialist Alternitive had reached a new low. There is a tradition in the IST of admiring “hardness”. This in itself is a weakness, as it puts up a shield to protect orthodoxies from challange and creates lazy thinking. I reckon that the IST’s idea of “socialism from below” is strong enough to stand up on its own without walls and tariffs.
Tony Hartin, May 29, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Chill out Bob. I was only responding to your characterisation of a 40-minute talk as “painful” and having an “obscure conclusion”. That doesn’t mean anything to me — I’d much rather know what political points the Italian speaker was making. Ditto for saying that Mick’s comments were “sweeping” — what did he actually say that you object to?
Though your story about books and conversation with Mick were vaguely amusing, the criticisms about SA are of no consequence (i’ve heard the same thing from different critics of different organisations for 20 years to zero sum effect). Why don’t you just put your side of the debate here? I warn you though, my eyes start to glaze over after four paragraphs.
Jill, May 29, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Tony, I take your point that a lot of Bob Gould’s claims were sweeping, sarcastic and not that helpful. But wouldn’t you agree that there probably are underlying difference between SA and most other left groups relating to propagandism? Whether it’s just a matter of emphasis or whether it represents a theoretical difference, I’m not sure. I’m not even saying that it’s a good or a bad thing, just that there does seem to be a diverging opinion on the left as to how small groups should operate. I wouldn’t have thought it would be a bad discussion to have out (although I’m doubtful as to the usefulness of a debate between Mick Armstrong and Bob Gould!)
Tony Hartin, May 29, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Hi Jill. I’m in your timezone for once as I’m in Japan this week. Perhaps things have changed in the six years since I was in Australia but I never noticed much difference between the left groups on a sociological level. Certain other groups always called us cultish, but it always seemed the same, more or less, when I attended any of their meetings. There is a balance to be struck between being too inward or too outward looking, and it’s worth drawing lessons from the errors in either direction. But Bob’s story seems more to do with the whippersnappers not paying him enough respect. Or possibly it’s because SA has the temerity to exist outside the Labor Party. In any case I would be much more interested in the substance of what he objected to in the analysis of Italy today, or of the legacy of 1968.
Chav May 29, 2008 (From Leftwrites) “I think Chav’s immediate call to have Bob blocked as a troll and reducing Bob’s arguments to apolitical name calling is telling in its self.”
Yes, I’m a horrible authoritarian — if only anyone would take me seriously, then I’d have real power. But tell me Darren, what in fact were Bob’s political arguments?
“The question is why and how have Socialist Alternitive got to the point where they can be compared to Hillsong church?”
That’s easy. They haven’t.
I must say, I find this comparing of SA, and I assume by extension other groups on the far left, to evangelical Christian organisations quite puzzling coming from experienced activists. It’s the sort of thing you might hear from a smart-alec university student as they pass by your cardtable or from an older and yet no wiser academic opining away in the pages of The Age or somesuch. The fact that it’s coming from experienced socialist activists inclines me to disbelieve the good faith behind the comparison and deduce that it’s a somewhat blunt tool being wielded in a sectarian attack.
@ndy May 29, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Ideological intransigence, democratic centralism and cultism: a case study from the political left. Dr Dennis Tourish
Chav, May 29, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Exactly, Andy, exactly.
@ndy, May 29, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Exactly what is your point? Tourish is an academic, yes. But he writes for a range of journals, is a former member of the CWI, which is the party he subjects to critical scrutiny, and who remains, as far as I’m aware, broadly sympathetic to socialist politics. Presumably, you mean to dismiss his analysis on this basis (his place in the academy), which is a fairly weak argument, I think. Or as Tourish writes in the abstract:
“A case history is offered of a comparatively influential Trotskyist grouping in Britain, which split in 1992, where it is suggested that an analysis of the organisation in terms of cultic norms is particularly fruitful. This is not intended to imply that a radical critique of society is necessarily inappropriate. Rather, it is to argue that political movements frequently adopt organisational forms, coupled with black-and-white political programs, which facilitate the exercise of undue social influence. This stifles genuinely creative political thought. Issues which this analysis suggests are particularly pertinent for those involved in radical politics are considered.”
I would suggest that, in dismissing any and all such critiques on the basis of their production by supposedly bourgeois forces, you may be read as an example of this black-and-white approach. Further, it seems to me that, leaving aside the question of whether or not, and to what extent, Socialist Alternative constitutes a political cult, the germane issues revolve around the conduct of public meetings such as the one Uncle Bob criticises for its resemblance to a prayer meeting. And from what I can gather, the absence of discussion was also the case in Melbourne and, presumably, in Brisbane and Canberra.
Ablokeimet, May 29, 2008 From Leftwrites) On my desk calendar yesterday, there was a quote from Maggie Thatcher: “Being powerful is like being a lady — if you have to tell someone you are, you aren’t.”
Bob mars many of his useful contributions to debate by excessive citations of his own importance. He has certainly been a big fish in the small pond of the left in Australia for over 30 years, but he does himself a disservice by reminding readers of it so frequently. At the very least, it’s an invitation for people from organisations he criticises to change the topic. If, when I reach the age he is now, I’m as well-known as him, it will be a sign that a meaningful number of people have noticed what I have to say. I’ll try to leave it to others, however, to remark on that point while I continue my political work.
On the substance of Bob’s criticism of Socialist Alternative, however, I have to say that I agree. I can find some fine theoretical articles in their mag, probably second only to the Sparts in that department, but I don’t see much evidence of Socialist Alternative supporters actually contributing to the class struggle beyond turning out en masse to demos with their red flags (a useful, though minor, act). If they’re doing more, I’d be pleased to be corrected. The one-sided emphasis on propaganda drains the left of otherwise committed activists and, due to their revolving door membership, produces far more ex-members innoculated against “socialism” than it produces “socialists”.
That’s the serious issue Bob was raising.
Tony Hartin, May 29, 2008 @ 10:09 pm (From Leftwrites) “ … but I don’t see much evidence of Socialist Alternative supporters actually contributing to the class struggle beyond turning out en masse to demos with their red flags”
From my own experience I actually did a hell of a lot more political activity after I joined Socialist Alternative, and less since I’ve been away from it (overseas). From a personal view life is more calm, much more boring and much less meaningful. Maybe I’m a born cultist.
Chav the Cultist, May 29, 2008 @ 11:28 pm (From Leftwrites) “ … the germane issues revolve around the conduct of public meetings such as the one Uncle Bob criticises for its resemblance to a prayer meeting. And from what I can gather, the absence of discussion was also the case in Melbourne and, presumably, in Brisbane and Canberra also.”
No, it’s not a germane issue, it’s total and utter bullshit and I for one am getting really sick of it.
Oh my god! Socialist Alternative has a series of meetings commemorating May 1968 during which there is no time alloted for discussion! They also have meetings every week, the majority of which is given over to dicussion from the floor. There are four of these meetings a week in Melbourne and at least one a week in Sydney and Brisbane.
Ah, wait a minute, now I get it! It’s because SA has open meetings with discussion every week in most capital cities that the Cultbusters were confused! They spotted the three meetings in the year that did not feature discussion from the floor and their more than slightly over-sensitive authoritarian radars got all in a tiz!
It’s so simple it’s, well, almost embarrasing.
@ndy, May 30, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Chav (the cultist): OK, so the meetings conducted on the tour did not allow for public discussion following the speeches; however, Socialist Alternative conducts numerous other meetings at which anyone is free to have their say.
On my reading, however, Uncle Bob was not referring to these other meetings, but one meeting in particular, in Sydney, on the subject of 1968. Aside from the absence of public discussion at this meeting, he made note of the apparently uncritical reception the speakers received. I think it’s these two facts that inform his view that the meeting was more akin to a prayer meeting than a properly political one.
Beyond this — and leaving aside the question of whether or not the subject of 1968 and its impact on Australian politics deserved better — Uncle Bob believes that the conduct of this meeting was informed by what he terms “Mick’s propagandistic approach to constructing a socialist alternative”. That is, “What got under my skin politically was the graphic way, demonstrated at that meeting, a propaganda group actually operates in the rounded way that Mick theorises in his recent pamphlet”.
Perhaps that’s an appropriate subject of discussion?
By the way, this Saturday there’s a benefit gig at the Lomond Hotel in Melbourne for some crazy, ultra-violent, exploitative, hostile, contemptuous, abusive, ultra-sectarian, anarchist provocateurs and wreckers from New Zealand, Sweden, Germany, England and interstate (aka the G20 arrestees).
Socrates, May 30, 2008 (From Ozleft) I have just came across this blog topic and its theme is of some interest to me. I have been to Socialist Alternative meetings and find these comments by Bob Gould very pertinent. Especially resonant to me was his view that SA currently resembles a political replica of Hillsong. I have studied the phenomenon of cults in the political sphere and have noticed many points of similarity between SA structure and behaviour and those of recognised cults both here and overseas.
One feature of such groups is the drive to recruit young, often first-year, university students who are particularly susceptible to the idealistic message of romanticised Marxism. Another feature is that these groups keep the juniour members unnaturally busy with magazine selling, stalls, postering and endless readings of selective socialist texts.
Another aspect is the propaganda level, in which there is no genuine desire or capacity to engage in serious debate, only repetitive regurgitation of historical positions and the self-sealing rhetoric of a closed group. The leadership will in fact discourage dissent from the other members. Another feature that marks such groups is that they appear to exist more for the benefit of the perceived status or ego of the charismatic (or non-charistmatic in this case) leader/leaders, rather than the goal of advancing the cause of workers or promoting real socialism.
Dennis Tourish, May 30, 2008 (From Leftwrites) My attention has been drawn to this discussion. I know little about SA, and have no desire to comment at length on something I have not studied. However, an organisation which thinks that convening public meetings in which the only purpose appears to be the presentation of a party line by its leaders without public discussion, debate and disagreement appears at the very least on a worrying trajectory.
Someone has also posted a link to my paper on the CWI in which I argue (I believe convincingly) that it is a cult. I won’t repeat those points: anyone interested can follow them up in the paper concerned. The wider point is that many of the cult-like dynamics I identify within the CWI are shared by many groups on the left, I believe to the detriment of the cause they advocate.
I also find it interesting that almost always my arguments are rejected on such grounds as the fact that I am an academic. Well, yes, guilty. (Incidentally, I know of at least one prominent activist in SA who lectures in a business school at one of Australia’s main universities — evidently, I am not alone in sinning). We all have to earn a living somehow. I chose to earn mine by working in a university, as much as anything because it permits me to write and say what I think — a privilege not found in a growing number of other occupations. There is much wrong with the university system, but this is about the major thing that is still right. I have used this privilege in the past to, for example, denounce managerialism in Australian higher education in the pages of The Australian. I am against authoritarianism when it is practised in business organisations, in the public sector, in universities — and, amazingly enough, when contemplating far left groups who trumpet an emancipatory agenda but deliver the opposite in their own practice. The word that best describes this paradox is: hypocrisy. Exposing it is an elementary duty on the part of anyone interested in building a better world than the one we currently inhabit.
Chav, May 30, 2008 (From Leftwrites) “The word that best describes this paradox is: hypocrisy. Exposing it is an elementary duty on the part of anyone interested in building a better world than the one we currently inhabit.”
Yes, slamming groups dedicated to making the world a better place by ascribing to them the characteristics of reactionary religious organisations is truly a worthwhile use of academic freedom.
Liz Thompson, May 30, 2008 (From Leftwrites) I don’t think the purpose of this thread is to “slam” SA. There is no question that SA is dedicated to “making the world a better place”. The question that other comrades are trying to pose with varying degrees of delicacy is: are you fucking it up?
I posted on another thread this article: I have no doubt it will be ignored of greeted by howls of derision, but I think it raises important questions. Because I personally no longer believe that the growth or otherwise of the various tiny groups on the left tells us anything much about the state of struggle (except perhaps in student world now that the bureaucracies have been largely defunded and there is much less competition for the positions), I thought it might be useful to post this rather reassuring idea to those going through the very ugly and unpleasant DSP split, having been through the nasty disintegration of another tiny group myself.
I post it here, I suppose, for perspective for those who are concerned about the political degeneration of one of — sorry, probably now the biggest of — the tiny groups on the left. Whilst it is clear that people have a genuine concern for the comrades in SA, and don’t want to see a whole generation of intelligent and extremely hard-working activists turned off politics altogether, I think we are not going to have much choice other than to sit back and see what happens.
I think that Bob is right to try to tease out the relationship between the elevation of propagandism to a high art and the beatification of St Mick. And I think that both Bob’s and Dennis’s contributions can suggest other reasons for SA’s growth other than just wow they must have the best politics — I would reiterate the near-elimination of organised competition in student world as another.
I can’t believe that the same people who were the student leadership of SA almost 10 years ago are still holding down positions in NUS. Ultimately I’m not sure anything will be gained by rerunning the farcical “debate” between the SP and SA — other than to further expose the cult-like tendencies in the group that seem obvious to everyone outside it.
If the idea is to attempt to expose SA members to more robust and healthy debate, my experience at the meeting between SP and SA doesn’t give me great hope. Whilst I think the general tendency in the group seems to be to innoculate members from outside influence, there are still some great younger members in the group who will, like the rest of us, have to at one point or another either be able to play a part in transforming the culture of the group or leave and do something more interesting.
In the meantime, hopefully they will be exposed, even accidentally, to struggle in their workplaces and on their campuses that is really the kind of experience that will make a difference. I think the tone of this thread indicates that any attempt from the outside to play a part in that will be next to useless. Good luck to the SA comrades. I genuinely wish them well.
Bob Gould, May 30, 2008 (From Leftwrites) This discussion is quite revealing about the attitude of people who inhabit the rather hermetically sealed world of Socialist Alternative.
Overseas supporter Tony Hartin makes a declaration of faith that when he was around Socialist Alternative his life was highly political, and he had a whiff of nostalgia for it, obviously.
I don’t like to be too tough on people, but if what I see of the political life of Socialist Alternative is comprehensive Leninist and socialist activity in the broader sense, I’m the man in the moon.
It is the features of pure propagandism, now theorised by Mick Armstrong, that tend to remove propaganda groups from any kind of concrete activity in the workers movement, other than occasional forays to give finger-wagging lectures of the sort that I described.
Some of the SA supporters react to this kind of critique like a bunch of hornets. They develop a rather artificial theme about my pomposity and megalomania. I certainly do have a problem when I discuss socialist political activity because what I say is inevitably informed by the 50-plus years of my own activity, some of it effective, but which also includes quite a few political mistakes.
I have no intention of not continuing to inform what I write about current socialist politics from my own experience. This obviously irritates some people, who prefer to discuss socialist politics in a more abstract way.
One of my intentions in raising this matter quite sharply arises from my own orientation. I favour public discussion of a rational, concrete and theoretical sort between all the groups, formations and tendencies that can be roped in, directed possibly at some sort of eventual regroupment.
In this my view differs from that of some friends and colleagues who have given up on the far left because of their own experiences. I don’t share that view. I don’t think you can jump over the few hundred mainly younger leftist in the small socialist groups, but rabid propagandism is a big obstacle to serious discussion based on the current balance of forces and conditions in the workers movement.
I note that the statement of perspectives by the new Revolutionary Socialist Party also mentions propagandism, happily in a slightly different way to Mick.
In my view, permanent abstention from the workers movement by socialists is a political curse. I choose to describe Socialist Alternative rather brutally because, given the ruthless way the leaders of SA try to protect their ranks from contamination by the external world, that’s the only course available to me. The web is a powerful way of reaching people, even the ranks of Socialist Alternative, who are discouraged by their leaders from talking to other socialists, except in the most combative way.
Regarding myself as an old whippersnapper, to use Chav’s term, I’m determined to get some kind of political dialogue going with the young whippersnappers, and a sharp critique isn’t a bad way of beginning a political debate.
Let the discussion continue!
The old whippersnapper, Uncle Bob
Tony Hartin, May 30, 2008 (From Leftwrites) OK Uncle Bob, let me pick you up on “pure propagandism”. Reading between the lines that seems to mean anything that is not activity in the workers movement. To my mind if one’s organisation was going to intervene in, say, a picket line or some form of workplace dispute, you should have at least a few members who are actually in that workplace. So SA and the ISO in my experience were always involved in teachers’ disputes, for example. Of course we traipsed to many another picket line with varying degrees of success. I would be very surprised if that has changed. We wanted to avoid the technique of the Healyites, who would send two members with a fully charged up megaphone to a workers event in order to harangue the unfortunate participants. SA also always intervened in arenas where they did have substantial numbers, for instance the student movement.
I wasn’t seeking to downplay your 50 years of experience, on the contrary I’m sure you have lots of interesting tales to tell — particularly on 1968. I’m still not sure what you disagreed about what Mick said on 1968 (not that I know what he said).
Dennis Tourish, May 30, 2008 (From Leftwrites) A defender of SA writes of my contribution here: “Yes, slamming groups dedicated to making the world a better place by ascribing to them the characteristics of reactionary religious organisations is truly a worthwhile use of academic freedom.” I have actually said very little about SA, but have suggested that the cult-like dynamics of many far left groups are an obstacle to the achievement of their goals, and that activists interested in social change should study these dynamics, learn from past mistakes and create better organisational structures. I believe that these forms would value dissent, debate and internal democracy, rather more often than the monolithic and oppressive structures that far left groups habitually create at present. Again, my readily available writings on the CWI spells this out in some detail. It is for others to judge whether any of this is applicable to the SA, DSP or other Australian groups on the far left. It appears that at least some of it is.
However, Chav sees something inherently wrong in suggesting that groups on the left can share some organisational forms with reactionary religious organisations (the Moonies, etc). I question this. As is well known, the Stalinist parties in the 1930s, at least in words, espoused socialist goals, but as Trotsky among others pointed out they actually shared many norms and organisational practices with fascist organisations. Of course the Stalinists howled, but it was a fair point. History knows all kinds of transformations. It is quite possible to start out with noble goals but end up adopting organisational forms that are destructive, dysfunctional, oppressive and that act as a barrier to these goals. Why wouldn’t it be? Jim Jones, who led 900 of his followers to suicide and murder in Guyana in the 1970s, also espoused socialist goals. Should the existence of such goals have prevented us exposing his organisational methods to some scrutiny? Gerry Healy in the WRP in Britain promoted a Trotskyist agenda, and no doubt deep down inside himself was firmly in favour of human liberation — so long as everybody did precisely what he decreed in the interim. As is now well-known, he actually created one of the most vicious political cults that we know of. Why should the existence of emancipatory goals automatically emancipate people from having their organisational practices scrutinised? It is well known that the Catholic Church favours celibacy for its clergy and sexual abstinence, but this hasn’t exactly prevented many of its priests from abusing children. I don’t see why Trotskyist organisations shoudl be immune from the well-known, and all too human, dynamics of hypocrisy and inconsistency. A belief system isn’t a magic talisman, warding off the evil spirits of impurity.
Ultimately, these organisations advocate revolution. They want the leadership of the working class. They want to replace existing mass parties with mass formations of their own. It would be crazy not to look closely at what they actually do, and crazier still to avoid highlighting examples of abuse, oppression and — yes — cultism where it applies. A little less sensitivity to such examination, and a greater willingness to argue the issues might well be in order.
As things stand, such organisations mostly burn out the energies of enthusiastic young people, turn them off politics for life, and achieve very little other than a colossal waste of everybody’s time. I modestly suggest that we can do better.
Chris M, May 30, 2008 (From Leftwrites) I’ve been reading a lot of stuff here lately but not commenting. For clarity and transperency a few facts up front. I’m a member of SA and prior to that the ISO, so like Darren I’ve been around IS-tendency politics for about 20 years, all of it in Sydney. I’ve witnessed Bob make valuable arguments in the antiwar movement back around 2003. Secondly I was at the meeting which Bob is talking about. Thirdly I think there is a danger for this blog if its most active and regular threads become about the ins and outs of the tiny far left in Oz.
I think Bob is over-reacting on the basis of a genuine disagreement about the orientation or perspective of SA. People should have a read of Mick Armstrong’s pamphlet From Little Things Big Things Grow to see what Bob is arguing against. Maybe Bob has posted up a long direct response? If Bob is guilty of trying to interpret small fuck-ups in terms of a general theory of propagandism (and of commenting largely on observations from a distance) I think Mick is guilty of overstating the case for the narrow road in his pamphlet. I don’t think it has been so neatly illustrated as his pamphlet implies, and some of the historical examples do not seem all that relevant to Australia today. But still there is much of value there and you could do a lot worse.
Back to the meeting. I too was disapointed that there wasn’t a discussion at this meeting, because in my experience the discussion is normally more interesting that the talk. Generally the approach that SA takes (and has taken) is that the discussion is more important than the presenation. This would have to be one of the few SA meeting I have been to in 13 years that has not had a discussion, and I’m not entirely sure of the reason why. My guess would be that it was on the basis of having two speakers. Still, I think it was a mistake and it should have ben announced by the chair that the meeting would be conducted in a different way from ususal. Is it born of a deeper problem? I think that’s the real argument to be had, not the meeting itself. Also I think Bob’s post is a bit unkind to the Italian speaker.
Obviously, different groups (all pretty small and irrelevant) have a different understanding of the world and how to make the most of it in the hope of becoming relevant. There is something to be said for the emphasis on propagandism and the primitive accumulation of cadre. At the same time I have no problem in people pointing out the inherrent risks. There are dangers of abstraction, dogmatism, abstentionism and routinism — and a danger of generally substituting orthodoxy and organisational forms for creativity and debate. In the case of the IS tendency in Oz, and SA in particular, there are specific problems. The process of splits etc, basically knocked out a degree of the cadre that had been developed. So there are people with many years experience and most people with very few. Given the reasonably poor state of the far left and fairly modest avenues for activism this does create less than ideal dynamics. There is no shortcut out of this, only patient work. I think the challenge is how to make a fairly formed body of ideas — based on the experience of the socilaist movement over the last century — relevant to a fairly differnt political landscape. How to defend a body of ideas, while still being able to accept criticism, develop new ideas etc. How to make small groups slightly less small.
Reading through the thread about the split in the DSP I’d have to say much of what Tom O’Lincoln says is eminently sensible and wise. The dynamics of the process that are been described, and no doubt the very real and heartfelt experiences that people are having, are a bit depressing and all too relatable. The more so because there is probably so much wasted energy in it. People would be aware that SA suffered some small haemorrhaging and a split in Brisbane about four years ago. Unlike Darren (who also has some very sesnsible things to say) I didn’t leave SA, but my enthusiasm and confidence for building a socialist group never really recovered. Other developments in my life also mean that it has moved to the peripheriy for purely practical reasons of competing demands on my time. I’ve never been overly convinced of how you get from a small group of less than a thousand to a group that meaningfully engages in the class struggle and helps lays the foundations for the kind of mass organisations that are needed to make democracy (and socialism) from below mean anything. But if SA hasn’t really been able to answer that one, I can’t see that anyone else has either in the current political context. I don’t see how the approaches that Bob discusses get us there — although it is definitely true that socialists can do good work as activists in a whole range of forums. A whole lot of things are just going to have to get tested out in practice as we go. We will all no doubt be wrong about plenty of stuff.
Tom O’Lincoln, May 31, 2008 (From Leftwrites) I haven’t responded to this thread like a “bunch of hornets”, but actually, as far as I can see from scrolling to the top, neither have any other SA supporters except Chav.
In fact I haven’t responded all, which is a pity, but I found it difficult because the more substantial arguments all seem to be old ones: that SA is abstract, it doesn’t contribute to the class struggle, and so on and so forth — nothing really new there.
It reallly just shows the group continues on a road mapped out a decade previously, based on the view that these are difficult times and we are tiny, so that cohering cadres around political theory is the priority. Some people think this goes too far and leads to distortions — and certainly there are dangers of abstraction, but then there are dangers in any course of action.
Some of the critics I greatly respect, despite disagreements, but on the other hand sometimes people engage in caricature (we are “hermetically sealed” despite our “revolving door”.) Anyway it’s not really possible to refute these views, which are entrenched. I could offer examples of us contributing to struggles, for example (I was down at RMIT yesterday supporting the Muslim students) but then somebody will say I’m an exception or we do it wrong, or whatever.
I would, however, be interested to know more about how people on this thread who disagree with our approach think we should build the left. For example, Bob might give us an example of a successful public meeting he has organised recently. If Liz agrees with Sam Moss that the working class is “concerned only with the needs of the moment and in general content with its social status”, what consequences follow for the struggle?
I did log in once with the intention of posting something on the facts, for example that the 1968 meetings were unusual, and that we have many publicly advertised events each week with discussion from the floor, but then I found Chav had already explained this. He was followed by someone who simply repeated the stuff about us holding “public meetings in which the only purpose appears to be the presentation of a party line by its leaders without public discussion, debate and disagreement”. Facts are poor things in the face of dogma.
Speaking of which, Mick will no doubt be delighted to hear there is a cult around him but I see little sign of it, and uproarious applause is hardly evidence. It’s just enthusiasm, which SA seems to have more of than much of the left. When I spoke at Marxism 2008, I got way more applause than I expected. I regret to inform you there is no Tom O’Lincoln cult.
thanhhuong May 31, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Perhaps the reason there was no discussion from the floor was, well, because, well, look at the 40-plus comments above! On the basis of this public discussion, discussionists would perhaps best be placed against the wall!
I think Gob Bould is probably having a royal old laugh reading the directionless commotion and distraction he has started above. Divide and conquer. And distract.
Garnet, May 31, 2008 (From Leftwrites) I’m the “rather gloomy looking bloke” that Bob refers to early in his article. I’m not sure why Bob feels the need to insult me personally despite never having had a conversation with me but I’m not terrible concerned.
I don’t feel the need to add much to Chris’s and Tom’s comments other than to answer Bob’s concerns regarding my report. I provided a detailed report during our previous meeting and again on Thursday before the demo, I’ve written two reports for our magazine and quite frankly it isn’t necessary to go right through all the politics every time we bring it up. Aside from that, we had two speakers and very little time to spare so I had to keep it short.
As for not participating in struggles, I’ve been run off my feet in the teachers’ campaign — attending association meetings as a delegate for my workplace, attending state council as a delegate for my association, building for the rally, making arguments around the need for more strikes and so on. I’ve worked hard in my workplace to get everyone together and I’m proud to report that we got 100 per cent of the teaching staff out on the day of the strike. I’m very pleased to be a member of SA and I don’t think my participation in industrial campaigns would be anywhere near as effective if I wasn’t. However, I don’t see this as being in anyway counterposed to the goal of building SA and as far as I can see, the project seems to be going rather well, as Bob noted on the size of our meeting.
Chris M, May 31, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Yes, Garnet, Bob’s comments about you were pretty unkind — and as your post points out, unfounded.
Socrates, June 1, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Previous contributors have raised some important issues that should not be left unresolved. Bob Gould (and others) have pointed out that some aspects of Socialist Alternative resemble an evangelical religious group not unlike Hillsong. One presumes that the purpose of the existence of a group like SA is to improve the human condition overall; to oppose exploitation of workers; to counter racism and sexism, and to generally work towards a more truly representative society.
However, it seems there are major flaws in the structure and behaviour of SA that some current members are reluctant to recognise or admit. Many such groups start with democratic values but over time adopt behaviour patterns of a cultic nature because this strategy works, particularly regarding recruitment. Hillsong is a good example of this progression. Is Tom O’Lincoln aware of the characteristics that define a cult? I have studied cults (of many variants) and there appear to be many similarities between the generic cult model and the present behavioural mode of SA.
People generally do not recognise how harmful mind control cults can be, both to the person directly involved and to the wider society. This is a much larger and more serious problem than merely debating the finer points of Marxist theory. Anyone who is interested in pursuing further the topic on political groups and cults should read the literature published by authors such as Steven Hassan, Janja Lalich, Dennis Tourish, Margaret Singer and R Lifton.
Cults appear in many guises (religious, political, commercial, New Age, etc) that all to some degree exercise mind control over their members. Often the participants and even the leaders are unaware of this odious feature. After observing SA for some time and reading the responses of SA members on this thread, it would appear that this cultic tendency is undoubtedly present in the SA group at this point in time.
Mark Goudkamp, June 2, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Bob noted that there wasn’t anyone from any of the other left groups at the SA meeting on 1968 in Sydney. As a member of the newly merged Solidarity, I would have liked to have gone along, but somehow 1968 lost out in the clash with my Mandarin class (here’s to China being a site of future upheaval!).
I was also a bit disinclined because when I’d attended SA’s South Africa public meeting back in March, I’d been told in no uncertain terms by Lian Jenvey that I wasn’t welcome, despite asking what I thought were reasonably constructive questions in the discussion (one of which was about treatment of Zimbabwean refugees, an issue that has surfaced in a graphic and tragic way over the past few weeks). My crime in Lian’s eyes was that I offered an overeager new member an exchange of his SA mag for my copy of Solidarity (I only did so after he’d asked me three times in as many minutes to buy his mag whilst I was browsing at the SA bookstall).
On a brighter note, I’ve just returned from a brief trip to the US. Among the many interesting political activities I was able to participate in (15,000-20,000-strong immigrant rights rally on May 1 in Chicago being a definite highlight), I attended a public meeting on May 1968 put on by the US ISO (at their Hunter College branch in Central Manhattan). It too was well-attended (60-70), but the contrast between that meeting and what has been described above appears to be rather stark.
Brian Jones who writes for their bimonthly IS Review gave a very engaging talk. He set the political scene, told the stories of factory occupations, hairdressers and footballers on strike, the mass assemblies at the Sorbonne, and went through some of the political lessons of the revolt. As he spoke, a ream of fascinating bulletins written at the time by radicalised Vietnam vets was passed around.
There was a lengthy discussion, with a number of people who were obviously non-members eager to contribute. First cab off the rank was a guy straight off a hospital picket line. There were questions about the difference between then and now, have people just become self-interested, the main forces on the left at the time, and many others that I’d need to look at my notepad to remember. I was impressed at the way ISO answered all these questions in a comradely manner (and that they were more than happy for a visiting Australian socialist to have a crack at responding too).
I guess I’m trying to point out that forums put on by small socialist groups can actually be useful, and if done with care and an eye to encouraging discussion, may mean that the cadre accumulated in the room actually learn something useful.
David Lockwood, June 2, 2008 I enter this discussion late and with some hesitation, mainly because all of the sins I am about to denounce I have committed myself at one stage or another (except perhaps that of excessive optimism).
The question of how the revolutionary left should organise is, I would have thought, a reasonable one for a list such as this to discuss — tiny though the number may be at this stage. I think that the two basic problems that have arisen in building small groups have been identified by Bob Gould and Tom O’Lincoln. The first is that of a propaganda persepctive, which tends to cut the group and its members off from actual struggles (and this can be a deliberate motive). The second is an over-hyped view of the possibilities (usually of growth) which, once it is seized, is difficult to retreat from. Both of these deviations (if such they are) would be familiar to anyone who has had anything to do with the IS, the ISO or Socialist Alternative over the past 20 years or so. But clearly current events on the far left show us that they occur elsewhere.
Why should this be so? The reasons are, I think, deeper than either Bob or Tom suggest and lie in small group projects themselves. As many readers will be aware, the project operates on the general principle that, if you can form a group around some aspect of Marxist politics and hold it together through good times and bad, then when serious struggle (class or otherwise) erupts, the group (perhaps with some regroupment along the way) will take off. It will grow into a big group and eventually become the Revolutionary Party.
This has never worked in practice.The process described above does not represent the actual historical experience of the Bolsheviks. From that day to this there is not a single example of the small group project succeeding.
That being the case, the group itself — its survival — becomes the most important thing. To survive it must recruit. And since, of those recruited, some will fall by the wayside, and some will fall upon stony places, and some will fall among thorns (ie not all of them will stick around), recruitment becomes the most important task. In good times, flights of over-optimism are required to get the recruits in; in bad ones, the propaganda perspective is required to keep them there.
The groups end up with leaderships that have a tendency towards authoritarianism (in order to get these things done) at one end, and a revolving door membership at the other. The reason for the latter is at least partly to do with the internal atmosphere. The contrast between the goal that the group sets itself (changing society) and what the group actually does (recruiting) can make their behaviour decidedly odd. Plus all the sorts of internal dynamics that you would expect in small groups of this sort.
I conclude from this that there is no real cure for the small group syndrome. The problems are inherent in the project. You could have a group that was turned determinedly outwards (as Bob suggests) and struggled valiantly against over-optimism (Tom) — but I think the same problems would present themselves.
A solution? Ah well, there you have me. I tend to oscillate between getting everyone that calls themselves a Marxist into a single organisation (the stock in trade of the CPGB/Weekly Worker) and Marxists operating as the left wing of a mass Social Democratic formation (which I think is what Bob would suggest). Though for the latter, it would seem that we need a mass Social Democratic formation to be the left wing of.
But whatever the answer is, I don’t think it lies through the small groups. In fact, I think they do rather more harm than good — not least to their own members.
(I was a member of the IS, Socialist Action, the ISO and Socialist Alternative between 1976 and 1999.)
Antigone, June 2, 2008 (From Ozleft) It has to be good to have a discussion about the internal culture, forms of organisation and leadership of far left organisations in Australia, the major currents of which date back at least four decades. Many current sect (an objective description) members would disagree that a public discussion is either necessary or good, for obvious but self-interested and short-sighted reasons. But their repeated failure to address or deal with the problems arising from their sectarian organisation will always made such a discussion necessary and inevitable.
The idiocy and self-defeating nature of the hatred of all other groups across the left spectrum, a hatred deliberately cultivated and highlighted at the point of recruitment, is perhaps the most formative, initiatory experience all new recruits undergo — to very unfortunate long-term effects. Perhaps the worst long-term effect is on the world view and political outlook of that vast majority of people constituting ex-members.
As a former member of the SWP/DSP, I find the testimony of other former members of far left groups who are still leftists precious and poignant. I commend the intellectual honesty that, interestingly enough, has overwhelmingly come in the discussion from current and former members from the ISO tradition, although the sentiments and observations are, I know, shared by most ex-members of the SWP/DSP during the same time-frame — ie four decades.
On the question as to whether such groups do more harm than good it gives me no joy whatsoever to say that I believe they do more harm than good in the long run if the criteria is effects on left politial outcomes and on the people who have built these organisations from the ground.
Doris Lessing was the first (I think) to comment that ex-members of left political groups tend to not only drop out of politics altogether, if they don’t go to the right, but also typically thereafter abhor the notion of any sort of community activism whatsoever. This has certainly been my direct observation of many former members.
I don’t have any dot-point solutions to this, but I think recognising the problem and proactively trying to address it and its obvious manifestations are basic. So is bearing witness. The personal is political, although many leftists never got that and still haven’t, which is also obvious from this discussion, but then feminism was always an opportunistic add-on in male-dominated left politics too.
Chris M, June 2, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Just quickly, I think the issue Mark G raises is pretty important. I thought the meeting in March was really good, and as Mark points out he made sensible contributions to the discussion. I ducked off quickly after the meeting to do something and then went to the pub. Think I later texted Mark saying a pity he wasn’t at the pub as it would have been nice to catch up. He indicated that he had been made to feel pretty unwelcome. Now, of course, a pub is a pub, and people can drink with who they like — but there is a blury line there between the personal and the political. I can’t see how Mark was going to single-handedly hijack informal dicussion amongst 30 people or so. The attitude is defensive, small-minded and utterly pointless. In fairness to Lian, though, I have to confess I forgot to ever follow it up and have no idea what her take on it is.
I’d have to agree with Mark’s take on the American ISO as it accords pretty much with my experience of them in early 2004.
Bob Gould, June 2, 2008 (From Leftwrites) On further consideration, I withdraw the world cult, applied to Socialist Alternative, in deference to the point made by several people that it’s rather uncomradely.
Considering the question carefully I prefer to describe Socialist Alternative as a sect, with the implied possibility of the group developing into cultism, but clearly that question isn’t decided yet. Anyone interested in these problems should carefully read Mick Armstrong’s pamphlet, which has some useful aspects despite the fact that — using the language he rather likes — it’s dead wrong on some important strategic questions.
I intend to write a more rounded critique of the pamphlet, which is quite long. I rather like the fact that Mick has clearly done the research for the pamphlet himself, and the footnotes and references are in themselves quite valuable. He even mentions a serious biography of Dzerzhinsky that I’ve never seen but am now trying to track down.
In this discussion, which I think is pretty useful, I’m not trying to win some kind of debate. I’m trying to present a different slant on things, particularly to the comrades of Socialist Alternative, who are pretty well unreachable except on the web.
Some people question some of the details of my impression of the internal atmosphere in Socialist Alternative, but inevitably once a discussion like this starts, those who are in Socialist Alternative or who have passed through it, or other socialists, will consider the arguments in light of their own experiences. If my general description strikes a chord, it may have some impact, and if it’s a hopeless caricature it won’t.
That’s for the readers and participants in the discussion to decide.
I’ll leave most of my points for a more extended discussion of Mick’s pamphlet, but I will make a few general observations here on the style and atmosphere of Socialist Alternative.
Garnet, who in my original post I described as the gloomy bloke, says he has never had a conversation with me. That’s certainly true. I’ve only ever been able to have a couple of very brief conversations with anyone in Socialist Alternative except Mick himself, and it hasn’t been for want of trying.
I’m pretty well known for personal agitprop and deliberate political gregariousness. I’m also, as people know, a bit of a pamphleteer. I’ve had the rather amusing experience of trying to leaflet Socialist Alternative red-flag contingents at demonstrations and meeting with great hostility and reluctance to take my leaflets.
This is the universal experience of other socialists attempting the same sort of thing. Clearly, the ranks of Socialist Alternative are trained in an exclusivist atmosphere and style, in which the only contact with other socialists, ideologically, is utterly polemical.
Reflection and discussion of a more relaxed sort appears to be discouraged. Internally, other socialists are routinely described as sects, and Socialist Alternative is presented as the only genuine embryo party.
Some of Chav’s contributions on Leftwrites exemplify this approach. He has defended the practice of calling the DSP Stalinist because of their quite complex position on Cuba, and some of the ranks of Socialist Alternative repeat that sort of thing in an even cruder way.
A couple of times when slightly more adventurous members of SA have been in my shop to buy the the odd pamphlet that they couldn’t find elsewhere, I’ve had short discussions with them. Recently, one young woman, when I initiated a discussion, said “you’re the bloke who wrote the thing attacking us about being on the other side of the road on election day”. She obviously hadn’t read it, but had heard about it.
I tried my hand at a bit of a public critique of propagandism, but she tired of that in about 30 seconds and said she didn’t have the time to talk and had to go to see contacts. The mind boggles at who the contacts might be and what she told them, but I’d wager that it consisted of selling the latest magazine and trying to get people to the next propaganda meeting.
Tom has made an observation about my political activity and how it measures up against that of Socialist Alternative. For the past couple of months I’ve been up to my ears in the battle against electricity privatisation in the Labor Party and the community at large.
I’ve been trying to harden up the opposition at meetings of the left, leafleting the Labor Parrty state conference, participating in the rank and file activities and trying to help turn the agitation outward into the community.
I’ve helped to organise some public meetings, and I’ve worked on a couple of lobbies and participated in a number of stalls in shopping centres.
Socialist Alternative has been present on a few occasions in this agitation: at a public meeting in Alexandria, at one of the Stop the Sell-off Campaign’s open meetings, and at the union-organised stopwork and protest at the opening of parliament.
Their verbal intervention at the meetings consisted of the simple, timeless, and not always correct, proposition that electricity privatisation would only be defeated by mass industrial action. Socialist Alternative was also present at the May Day protest outside the Labor Party state conference in early May.
They didn’t appear to have any specific leaflet on electricity privatisation, but just selling their magazine and bizarrely, to my mind, they pretty well ignored the 800 or so delegates and 300 or 400 Labor rank and filers attending the conference.
By way of contrast, I got there about 7am, and I and three comrades leafleted the Labor conference participants, and later the May Day crowd as it assembled. Altogether we handed out about 1800 leaflets.
There was the conference, there were the 30 or 40 Socialist Alternative people with their red flags, and they ignored the conference. Socialist Alternative’s behaviour on that day appeared to me like the distilled essence of propagandism.
Finally, the question of shepherding. I don’t know the detail of other cities, but I’m pretty sure it’s similar. Younger members of Socialist Alternative who go anywhere in the political world seem to be carefully shepherded by older members.
One of the reasons you don’t see too many SA interventions in other areas is probably that there aren’t enough older members to go around, and it’s regarded as highly dangerous to let the younger members wander around other political people without a shepherd.
Further description of my observations on SA’s practice will have to wait on my critique of Mick’s pamphlet and its political implications.
Tom O’Lincoln, June 2, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Bob Gould writes: “Tom has made an observation about my political activity and how it measures up against that of Socialist Alternative.”
Not at all. I did hint that people who tell us how to run meetings might like to lead by example, rather than making their points in the, err, abstract. It wasn’t a criticism of your activity, which sounds quite good. Your defensive reaction is unnecessary — but revealing, because it’s what happens when we create an unnecessarily adversarial atmosphere.
“Younger members of Socialist Alternative who go anywhere in the political world seem to be carefully shepherded by older members.”
I haven’t particularly noticed this, but I suppose some of it happens. In fact I’d be surprised if it didn’t. I’ve been around the far left since 1966 and I’ve never seen a group that didn’t do it, though some pretended otherwise. Having put a huge effort into recruiting new people, it’s always scary to see them subjected to political pressure of whatever kind.
Neither is “shepherding” always a bad thing. I mentioned going to RMIT last Friday. It was my first involvement. I thought I was clear on the issues, but I soon found myself dealing with a hostile university staffer who knew them better than me. Ack! Then I approached someone else, who also turned out to be a hostile university staffer who knew the issues better than me!
Fortunately a member of our branch committee was there who I could ask for a clarification of the details. Being an old hack, I would have coped without this, but it would have been a crushing experience for a new member.
Liz Thompson, June 2, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Tom, I think that explanation is a bit cute. I suspect Bob may be referring to the process of SA members being physically shephered away from discussion of any kind with members of other groups. This frustrating and rather bizarre practice occurred at Monash all the time when I was there, even at times when young members were silly enough to actually approach me to have a chat about things.
Not that SA is the only group that engages in such behaviour. Certainly, when I joined the ISO at Monash, I was told in no uncertain terms by the “leading member” of the campus club that I should not go to SA meetings, and he even pulled down SA posters on the first poster run I went with him on. I told him to grow up or I was leaving right then.
I’ve no doubt he continued doing it though. I went to a few SA meetings, at which I was presented with all the documents of the split (boring as batshit), but stopped going after a while because I was made to feel unwelcome in the same way that Mark describes. I then went on to have the bizarre experience of finding myself physically surrounded by “leading” SA members on campus whenever I tried to have any kind of discussion (about anything!) with some of their newer members. This made organising many things, including the Monash crew for M1, Woomera, Education conference etc, stupidly difficult at times. I must confess, sometimes I met in secret with SA people to discuss these campaigns. I hope it wasn’t too crushing or traumatising for the new members.
I’m not sure having a discussion with someone who knows more about an issue is a “crushing experience” — perhaps it might encourage them to find out more before they start telling others what they should think about it? I might even call it a learning experience.
Tom O’Lincoln, June 2, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Liz, did I deny that the undesirable type of shepherding occurs? No, like you, I said it’s a common feature of left groups. Therefore it probably happens in SA. Therefore people like you are bound to have examples to point to. But like so much of this argument— and unlike the thread on the DSP split — there is nothing specially new going on right now to justify this sudden eruption on Leftwrites.
Darren, June 2, 2008 (From Leftwrites) “On the question of shepherding”, I’d say that the dynamic is not quite so sinister. Four years ago I was an older member of SA, so any shepherding going on I wouldn’t have seen (and I certainly didn’t shepherd anyone.)
But as a young man I was a member of the International Socialists, (before they were ISO) also under the leadership of Mick Armstrong. This was a very sectarian and insular group and in fact this period in IST history is known (with some shame, but also amusement) as the gung-ho period.
At the time I insisted on going to other meetings, such as the Defend the Unions Committee. Leading members tried to discourage me from doing so, but I was never given a shepherd. In fact, I was given no support at all.
In the case of the shepherding that Bob says he has witnessed, I suspect that the idea of going along to the event was not that of the young comrade, but of the SA leadership trying to intervene in the struggle. The young comrade is there to gain experience.
If this is the case, it should be welcomed that SA is trying to involve itself. Whatever else you may say about SA and their “narrow propagandism”, their orientation is based on one fundamental truth: that small socialist groups can have fuck-all effect on the wider class struggle. The point of intervention, therefore, is not to affect the class struggle but to maintain an interface with it. Without which, the group will (and has) become weird.
Joseph Cross, June 3, 2008 (From Leftwrites) I remember SA meetings on and off over the years where there was no discussion from the floor. Seems to me this could be based on simple practicalities eg, a lack of time, or that there was a loony present (not referring to anyone in particular) who would take the discussion off in some pointless direction.
More importantly, I think this discussion more reflects, as someone mentioned, the fact that SA is now the biggest far left group in the country. Hence they become a focus for criticism, despite having, as far as I’m aware, operated in pretty much the same way since they began. And although growth in and of itself is no guarantee of correct politics, it does sort of say something about SA, that while the other groups have been slowly disintegrating, SA is the one group that has held together and increased in size. I think that fact in itself says something in favour of the way they run meetings and operate in general. Not to say any of this is above criticism.
Regarding cults, sects or whatever, the way to avoid the danger of small-group cultism is basically to become bigger. Again, SA can lay claim to be the best placed to do this of any of the left groups.
Wombo, June 3, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Joseph Cross wrote: “More importantly, I think this discussion more reflects, as someone mentioned, the fact that SA is now the biggest far left group in the country. Hence they become a focus for criticism, despite having, as far as Im aware, operated in pretty much the same way since they began.”
I’m sure telling yourself that makes you feel good at night, but it still isn’t true. The DSP is still bigger than Socialist Alternative (even after splitting — and is recovering very quickly from that crisis). And if we take your (and Chav’s) apparent measurement of size by how much criticism you get, the DSP still outweighs Socialist Alternative remarkably.
Not to mention — as none of you ever seem to do — the non-aligned membership of Socialist Alliance, which outnumbers even the DSP.
Size, however, is apparently not everything, and I’m told that it is what you do with it that counts. Socialist Alternative is well known for massive postering runs, for red-flagged contingents at rallies, and their recent conferences have been pretty large (they’re not alone on that front, either). But (perhaps with some notable exceptions, Garland) their membership seems reasonably disconnected from the real world (off campus) and the campaigns (and activists) in it.
Even in the campaigns they are “involved” in there is often a tendency not to do much above volunteering to poster (or make the poster). I know I’ve only seen a slice of Socialist Alternative activity. But why, then, do so many others make the same complaints?
And for what it’s worth, I think Socialist Alternative’s modus operandi has been coming in for criticism for a while now.
Omar H, June 3, 2008 (From Leftwrites) I’ve been a member of Socialist Alternative for about eight months and that event was the first in which discussion was not the dominant feature of a meeting.
Also, putting aside irrelevant arguments over membership figures, Joseph’s point stands. The reality that SA is growing while all other groups disintegrate does seem to speak for itself. This doesn’t mean we’re perfect, nor does it mean we’re immunised from political mistakes, but it does say something positive about the way things are being done.
Re SA and activism: quite a few people keep pointing to this theoretical framework of SA as a propaganda group without an understanding of what this actually entails. True, the primary emphasis is on recruitment (so that we can actually have an impact), but the members remain genuinely left-wing people. We’re self-motivated and get involved in movements and campaigns wherever we happen to be. Given that most of our members are university students it is no surprise that we are heavily involved in student activity. To act otherwise would be substitutionism, and we’re not aiming to be a dial-a-picket. Having said that, many of our comrades take it on themselves to go and show solidarity with strikers at any particular time to learn what’s going on and gain some experience.
People constantly refer to SA as isolated and separate from real movements. I just wonder where are these movements that we’re supposed to be so isolated from. I for one — as a comrade from SA — would love to be involved.
Darren, June 3, 2008 (From Leftwrites) “Nah-nah, my group’s bigger than your group!”
Grow up, the pair of you.
Socrates, June 3, 2008 (From Leftwrites) A previous commentator mentioned that new recruits to groups on the left are initially taught to hate other groups — especially on the left.
This tendency seems to contradict the basic concept of socialism, which is supposed to be predicated towards the uplifting of humanity.
This attitude of hostility and combativeness bears more resemblance to the practices of fundamentalist religions, with the entrenched us-and-them division, or the with-us-or-against-us exclusiveness. Would it not be preferable to search for common ground between groups, instead of fault-finding? Humans are not machines, so complete agreements are unlikely and unhealthy in any movement.
Groups that are open and transparent will grow in strength and numbers in a true sense. However, some groups exercise control over their members’ physically (activities, use of time, etc), psychologically (peer group pressure, commitment, mentoring) and through ideological indoctrination with restricted reading material.
Consequently, the members willingly become loyal footsoldiers of the group. Such control behaviour is really a form of oppression that is the antithesis of the true spirit of socialism.
This strategy is often adopted in the name of growth, and people exposed to such an approach eventually lose the ability for critical thinking.
Members believe they have freedom of choice but the freedom is actually constrained by the boundaries of the group’s mindset. This concept is well described in the book Bounded Choice, by Janja Lalich.
Junior members of groups like Socialist Alternative insist that they have open debate and democratic structures, but the reality is that they are thinking only within the boundaries as set by the leadership (intentionally or otherwise). For this reason, as Bob Gould pointed out previously, SA members do in fact behave much like the true believers of Hillsong.
Socialism aims to improve human conditions; this requires expansion of the individual’s knowledge and awareness, not a restriction of them to suit the goals of a particular group.
Chav, June 4, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Socrates, I think you’re on to something here. However, I think you’ve yet to get to the core of the problem, which is why the members of far left groups obey without question the edicts of their leaders. I think it’s fairly obvious the answer to that question lies in the enormous powers of mind control and brainwashing these leaders possess. A clear example would of course be Lenin, who with his immense mind control powers, honed over decades of what to outsiders must have appeared to be discussion and debate, was able to control the thoughts and deeds of an entire nation!
Of course I’m not naive enough to believe one person could do this unaided and I believe Lenin made extensive use of external devices, in his day and age the telegraph system. Not without reason did he proclaim, “Electricity plus socialism equals communism”!
Jill, June 4, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Grr, I’ve been staying out of this because I haven’t had time to write the lengthy post that I want to but just a few quick comments in the meantime.
There seem to me to be two different debates. One is about SA’s propaganda perspective — whether it is substantially different from the rest of the left and what the consequences of that are. For the record, I don’t think SA is a cult — and I’m pretty sure no one else writing on Leftwrites really thinks this either. I also think that it is somewhat difficult to judge the dynamic of an organisation from outside. However, I do think it’s fair enough to critique the actions of other Left organisations, as long as you do it in a comradely fashion, which is what we try to do here.
Having said all that, it seems fairly clear to me that SA does have a more propagandist approach than it did some years ago and substantially more than some other groups have. I don’t know why SA members find that, in itself, a criticism — presumably it’s something that has been argued and carried out quite consciously. And after all, there are advantages to such an approach, just as there are disadvantages in veering too far in the opposite direction. I do think that a very propagandist approach comes with some consequences — a tendency to be more slightly more isolated, less experience in leading campaigns, fewer members who are able to act independently, fewer “reality checks” from the broader movement. But a more activist approach comes with problems too. The propaganda debate seems quite a useful one to have if only we could move it away from people taking it so personally. On this note, starting a thread called “Mick Armstrong’s prayer meeting” was probably not a productive way to kick it off.
There’s a second debate which is related to the first but is not specifically about SA. It’s about some of the negative internal dynamics associated with small groups. This is not something that’s specifically restricted to left-wing groups (there are plenty of right-wing, religious or even cultural organisations that slide towards cultish behaviour) but for some reason, people on the left often see this kind of discussion as an attack on organising itself. One leftie even told me recently that it’s “right-wing” to have such a discussion. I don’t understand why we can’t maintain a slightly complex position — that we’re committed to building left-wing organisations but are open to discussing some of the negative internal dynamics that occur, particularly when the left is so small and isolated from any mass movement.
If we pretend these problems don’t exist, we never actually find ways to try to counteract them.
Omar H, June 4, 2008 (From Leftwrites) I think the key point you raised, which I’m sure is an old one, is the importance of political dialogue and debates. As someone new to the scene, I can clearly state that people who engage in apolitical bullshit such as name-calling and the facile reduction of others’ arguments, lose respect and influence.
That includes those within SA.
Ed Lewis, June 4, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Jill makes some very good points about the dynamics of groups, and it could be added that groupthink has affected organisations far larger than groups of a few hundred. The Stalinist parties, which accepted the Stalin cult around the world, were often parties of thousands or even tens of thousands.
I don’t think anyone is expecting members of the small left groups that exist today to enaged in self-flagellation and confess their sins, but there’s plenty of hard evidence of the need for consciousness of such problems.
A case in point is Wilfred Burchett, who is discussed by Mark Aarons in today’s Australian Literary Review. Burchett, as Bob Gould points out on Ozleft, did some very useful things and some reprehensible things, all in the name of a belief system that he considered to be communist.
Dave Latham, June 5, 2008 (From Leftwrites) I’ve wondered for a while what the value is of setting perspectives documents for revolutionary groups, especially small ones.
For those not in the know, a perspectives document is usually a yearly attempt to focus a political group toward a series of political or theoretical priorities and active engagement in political campaigns and class struggle. It is meant to give some understanding and direction to its members by a presentation on what preponderant form of crisis is facing capitalism.
In my experience, perspectives documents are rarely oriented to the capacities and strengths of the group that is meant to realise those perspectives. The prespective document is not formed on the basis of what a socialist group might be realistically expected to achieve based on its membership, but on what a group hopes to achieve based on its broad diagnosis and hopes.
Tom O’Lincoln is half-right when he talks of impatience as a trap for small groups, but he is perhaps too sanguine when he suggests that “cohering cadres around political theory is the priority”. Really, we should be developing our theory of Marxism around active engagement with the struggles that members are involved in, as well as general theory and history.
Andrew Calleja, June 5, 2008 (From Leftwrites) As a former member of the Australian Socialist Party [CWI] for seven years (2000-2007), I’m well-placed to respond to Dr Dennis Tourish’s piece on the British Socialist Party and the CWI in general. Tourish’s work is based on pre-1993 research but the conclusions have contemporary repercussions for the socialist left, in and outside of the Socialist Party.
As a general rule I always felt that the CWI, almost exclusively via its British centre, did have an impact on the work and political direction of the Australian Socialist Party, however at no stage did I feel that the CWI suffocated the Socialist Party to the extent that we were made to follow orders. In 2004 the CWI felt that the party should contest the federal seat of Melbourne, but the Melbourne branch concluded that we should just concentrate on the City of Yarra council election that was to take place shortly after the federal election. We did just that without any reprisal from London.
The premise of Tourish’s exposure on the British Socialist Party and the CWI is to prove that it is a cult rather than a political party that forms part of a socialist international. Tourish’s own experience and research based on former members fails to reveal anything extraordinary, other than the secretive nature of its entrist period in the British Labour Party, so he concludes that sometimes the CWI is a cult and other times it isn’t. Tourish’s oh-so-postmodern position isn’t really all that helpful to the reader researching the validity of the CWI and shouldn’t be used as a reference by current or former members to justify leaving the Socialist Party, particularly in Australia.
Former and current members of the Socialist Party will be familiar with many of the grievances of interviewees, and I for one concede that these grievances reflect the political shortcomings of the organisation. However, this in itself isn’t cause for labeling the organisation a cult. Tourish’s work relies heavily on socially constructed prejudices of radicalism and fails to analyse dynamics that are consistent with power battles across a broad cross section of society.
Yes, my experience of the Socialist Party was that on occasions bland individuals were promoted to positions of power, but is this an extraordinary phenomenon restricted to the Socialist Party? When I worked at the Australian Council of Trade Unions, from time to time jobs were filled internally. On occasions, people with family connections or an affiliation to the ALP were given jobs even though they may not have been the most talented person to apply. Is the ACTU a cult? Of course not, employment practices often reflect team dynamics and the desires of leaders. Political organisations aren’t immune from this.
Away from politics I also work on a volunteer basis for a football club, which relies heavily on volunteer labour, the club also employs one full-time and part-time worker. During the football season some volunteers spend two to three days a week around the club, indeed many people including myself forgo watching most home games as we are working. All in all, this requires great devotion and enormous passion. Is our football club a cult? Of course not, based on a well earnt past reputation people involved have a strong sense of loyalty to it.
Postmodernism can’t comprehend individual loyalty and in a political setting derides the loyal as incapable of embracing a plural approach to building a political movement. In my experience, even the most rabid Socialist Party members had no issue in working with others in the socialist and wider left. Yes, they would make observations and ridicule others, but as I often found out on polling booths, so do members of the ALP and the Greens. The closer the Greens have come to winning the state seat of Richmond and federal seat of Melbourne, the more tense relations get between the parties.
Tourish’s effort is a glorified tabloid piece that makes for a modest academic effort. While some of the personal observations gleaned from former members are relevant discussion points on the shortcomings of vanguard parties and the organisational methods of the Socialist Party, Tourish fails to turn them into any meaningful proof that the CWI is indeed a cult. Tourish presents research and conclusions, in between skipping an analysis of the research.
Mannie De Saxe, June 5, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Never mind deja vu, this whole post suggests what the French expression so eloquently states: plus ca change …
From Bob Gould’s initial post, all the way through to the last one, indications are that from the time I was first involved with the socialist left in 1986 to the present, 2008, the socialist groups in Australia — and it would seem the UK as well — have rent themselves asunder with sectarianism, control freaks, splits, breakaway groups, re-formed groups, a broad alliance dominated eventually by one group so that its initial concept of a broad socialist left collapsed.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s doctrinaire and dogmatic control of the International Socialists led to the expulsion of activists who then created a group called Socialist Action. By the early 1990s Socialist Action was clearly not growing, and the IS was not doing anything much to advance socialist activism in Australia, so talks between the two groups led them to merge and form the International Socialist Organisation.
The ISO was also responsible for some activities that destroyed any credibility they may once have had. Members of the ISO who were also members of Lesbian and Gay Solidarity in Sydney decided that LGS was a one-issue organisation — which it never had been — and walked out en masse, leaving its membership tattered, a blow from which it wasn’t able to recover.
The ISO then went on to do what it does best — it expelled some of its leading figures, who then went on to form a new socialist perspective (are any of them really new?) called Socialist Alternative.
Now the leaders of Socialist Alternative are being accused of doing what they also do best — being control freaks with the outcome being disgruntled members who leave the activism that such a group presumably offers.
My personal experience of all of these groups is that they only listen to what they want to hear, and if someone puts forward other ideas for discussion, they are ignored or put down.
It seems as if the socialists have a long way to go before they can become sufficiently serious enough to form a united front in the fight against the capitalist system to achieve anything in this comfortable, middle-class society in which we live.
Dennis Tourish, June 5, 2008 (From Leftwrites) I’d like to thank Andrew for his comments on my piece on the CWI. Although the discussion on this site is mainly about SA, I suppose people may feel that many leftist groups have common ideology and organisational dynamics, so there may be some worth in studying such groupings across the board. I won’t say anything about the CWI in Australia, which I have not studied, but would like to comment on a couple of Andrew’s general points.
The first is that he seems to reject my analysis as being somehow postmodern. This is news to me. I am not a postmodernist: it is the modern syphilis of intellectual engagement. My long article on the CWI sets out a definition of cults, identifies their main characteristics, and then seeks to explore the extent to which these characteristics are present or not present in the CWI. This does not seem like a postmodern endeavour to me. But that’s not a huge point.
Cults are organisations that display a fanatical obsession with a theory or ideology, which is usually held to be the key to solving all the world’s problems (this could be a religious belief; one of personal development, such as found in some counselling systems or politics). The notion is that only this particular organisation understands the ideology correctly — thus, for example, the CWI sets itself up as the defender of genuine Marxism, from which all its rivals are said to have deviated. Fired up with this conviction, a leader (or two) become viewed as demi-gods by the membership, who are naturally encouraged not to question them too carefully. Influence flows from the leader to the followers, rather than the other way round. Rather, the role of other leaders and certainly of followers is to cheer-lead the insights of the extraordinary leaders — and do what they say. Events and conferences become showcases for the latest wheezes of the leaders: the followers listen and applaud. Recruiting others to the one belief system, or program, that is indispensable for the salvation of humanity follows next. People work at extraordinary levels to achieve their goals — selling, recruiting, persuading, and running in circles. Quick, no time to lose. We must grow now, or we will miss our historic opportunity. This leaves little time for genuine reflection. If members notice that yesterday’s predictions (such as the CWI’s view that the 1990s would be the most revolutionary decade in human history) have not quite come to pass, there is always the next campaign to distract them. Naturally, some doubts arise. Occasionally, some minor disagreement is tolerated — all the better to show the organisation’s democratic credentials. The problem is that when a bit of doubt becomes substantial, or involves significant forces, the doubter(s) are excommunicated at warp speed — they have betrayed the movement, become corrupt, gone senile, violated procedures for raising issues, behaved disloyally, split (as with recent shenanigans in Australia’s DSP), and/or engaged in a conspiracy to undermine the leadership.
I contend that this has been the reality of the CWI. Since I published my piece originally the situation has become worse rather than better. Andrew suggests that each national organisation has in reality great freedom of movement from London and the leadership of Peter Taaffe. Yet in each country they all implement practically the same line, are called Socialist Party, and stand outside any formal labour movement structures. It doesn’t look very independent to me. Additionally, both in the UK and internationally, there have been a series of splits and expulsions, as groups and individuals who disagreed with Peter Taaffe were excommunicated. For example, one of their leaders in the US — an old friend of mine from Ireland, who does not share my analysis of the CWI — named John Throne was fired as a full-timer and expelled some years ago, and incidentally left with unpaid medical bills in the health climate of the US. John’s crime? Apparently he “refused to accept the decisions of the CWI” — whatever that means. No one has ever explained precisely what his alleged crime was, despite repeated invitations to be specific. It looks to me, and many other observers, that it was a “thought crime” — yes, the CWI (or more accurately, Peter Taaffe) “decided” — and John dared to hold on to and campaign for his views. (Nor was he allowed his right of appeal to the CWI’s international congress). I offer this as just one example. In Scotland, Merseyside, Pakistan and elsewhere we have had the same. The CWI is today a shrunken sect of little importance, including in its UK heartland, where it has just a few hundred members. I would suggest that its intolerant internal regime is an important part of the reason for this decline, and it is one other forces on the left would be well advised to learn from rather than emulate.
Andrew draws attention to the fact that people belong also to things like football clubs, to which they have been known to show great loyalty. Well, I suppose everything has something in common with everything else, in this interconnected universe that we inhabit. But this is like comparing the rusty old bicycle in my garage to a Ferrari: what they don’t have in common is more important than what they do. I am not saying that loyalty denotes a cult — I am saying that when people have an inordinate conviction that only their group has all the answers to the world’s problems, when dissent from this view results in expulsions, when other groups who share the same basic ideology are demonised and ridiculed, when people work to the exclusion of almost everything else to advance their group, when recruitment, recruitment, recruitment is a daily mantra, when nothing is learned and no ideological advance occurs, when this and the other phenomena I explore occur: then we have a cult. Political groupings are not immune to these processes: leftist groups seems less immune than most. Whether people like or approve of the word cult that I use to describe this, I really do hope that they conclude there must be better ways of organising.
Chav, June 6, 2008 (From Leftwrites) “My personal experience of all of these groups is that they only listen to what they want to hear, and if someone puts forward other ideas for discussion, they are ignored or put down.”
Mannie, it’s a shame your personal experience didn’t include picking up the materialist aspect to Marxism. Relevant in this case is that the health, size and effectiveness of revolutionary socialist organisations will be determined in large part by the level of class struggle, which since the mid-1970s has been sluggish to say the least.
“Now the leaders of Socialist Alternative are being accused of doing what they also do best — being control freaks with the outcome being disgruntled members who leave the activism that such a group presumably offers.”
Presumption and accusation are not the same as fact. I’m sure the leadership of SA have been accused of many things, in the meanwhile they and the membership have gone about building one of the biggest Marxist groups in Australia today.
Perhaps the critics might like to lead by example?
Chrys, June 7, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Chav, your final word suggests vindication because of numbers. But isn’t this what is worrying? History has shown it to be a dubious argument. The People’s Temple had an impressive 900 members before they all took their revolutionary suicide via cyanide-laced Kool Aid. OK, so that may be taking the cultist resemblances a little too far, but I still don’t think numbers should be advanced as any kind of measure of rightness.
Socrates, June 8, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Previously in this thread, an SA member was proud to declare that this group was the largest Marxist group in Australia — so they must be doing something worthwhile!
Well? Hillsong and Scientology are very large groups; is size alone a suitable criterion for decency and credibility?
One of the SA members (Omar) previously confirmed that their group’s prime objective is recruitment. As Dennis Tourish indicated in the previous post and also what is common knowledge among the specialists in cult studies, recruitment is one of the primary objectives of cults.
This is my personal experience after encountering some SA members.
SA mainly targets naive first-year university students for recruitment. Once they are recruited, they themselves become recruiters. They are busy selling magazines on campus and also on the streets (of course, they are never alone), sticking up posters, attending meetings, reading classes, working bees, etc. The leaders instruct the junior members that once they have managed to get some contact with prospective members, they must follow up through vigorous phone calls to entice them to come to meetings and so on, which, I can imagine, amounts to substantial phone bills. New members are enthusiastic about these activities because they are “doing something worthwhile” rather than “being spectators”. Also, the executive leader demands that members provide their bank account numbers so that the leader can automatically deduct the fees. The SA handbook indicates that anyone on a salary should sacrifice 10 per cent of their income to the group. Members are also encouraged to share accommodation with other fellow members. Ultimately, their life almost solely revolves around SA. (Carry out main activities with SA, socialise with SA and live with SA). People who are living within such a lifestyle usually become socially and intellectually constrained. Although most of them are students, by the time they become full-fledged “activists”, they hardly have time or interest for study, so that some become continuous part-time students and/or fail subjects, turning into typical campus parasites. The main and almost sole reason for them to stay in university is to conduct the group’s activities, which is mainly recruitment. This is the ideal situation for SA’s leadership because after all university campuses are their breeding ground.
I have observed this cultic phenomenon for some time and regard this as unhealthy and needing close scrutiny rather than it being judged as “uncomradely” to do so. The whole issue of this discussion is beyond politics per se; the point is whether it is valid to describe SA as a cult (or that it displays cultish tendencies).
Any group, political, religious, or others should not expect to be exempt from scrutiny of this type.
The Kool Aid Kid, June 8, 2008 (From Leftwrites) “… recruitment is one of the primary objectives of cults.”
Perhaps then Dennis could turn his much-needed attention to the Australian Defence Forces, the Australian Labor Party, the Collingwood Football Club, the Scouts, and my local swimming team?
Dennis Tourish, June 9, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Logic suggests that you should study something in the round; you should explore as many of its characteristics as possible; that you should further see how these characteristics interact with all others, and then reach a conclusion about whatever it is you are studying. This discussion would seem to suggest that many people are unwilling to do this with one key issue — their own organisational practice. Thus, a commentator, with a heavy handed attempt at humour, picks up my suggestion that one of the things you find in cults is a zealous emphasis on recruitment, “discovers” that such organisations as the defence forces allegedly share this predilection, and therefore concludes that his organisation can’t be a cult. This is like arguing that all humans eat, and so do all dogs: therefore, dogs and humans are the same species. The point is that cults can be defined by a number of inter-related habits that they embrace, and which they practice to an extent found far beyond comparable organisations. This is a bit different to arbitrarily picking one characteristic and alleging that organisations either are, or are not, cults on that basis.
My own study of the CWI found that recruitment had become an obsession, and by far the most important thing in the daily activities of its members — more so than reading, thinking, studying, and certainly more important than the mundane realities of political struggle. Members were told, for example, that the main purpose of intervening in a strike was recruitment — and that success or failure in such interventions was measured by the CWI primarily in terms of how many members could be won from it. Note, the success or failure of the strike was secondary — not irrelevant, but definitely secondary. Such mindsets might turn groups into the Jehovah’s Witnesses of the left, but they are a million miles away from what you would find in football clubs (a comparison much favoured in the CWI), or most other organisations.
In my main article I cite the following well-known definition of cults:
“A group or movement exhibiting great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea or thing, and employing unethical manipulative or coercive techniques of persuasion and control (eg isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it), designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families or the community.”
I then go on to discuss numerous consequences of this, including the creation of a high-activity environment in which leaders are deified, ideological purity is paramount, no substantial dissent is tolerated, members are run ragged in service of the leader’s mission, and in which an obsession with recruitment dominates people’s lives, since the fate of the world is believed to hang on the growth of their organisations. Not all cults share all these traits to precisely the same extent. It is a continuum — some organisations are barely off the starting blocks on such issues as group conformity (non-cults), whereas in others to disagree with the leader on the weather forecast is to invite immediate excommunication (cults). There was a difference, for those interested, between the CWI and Gerry Healy’s monstrous Workers Revolutionary Party (it also had noble-sounding ideals), which thankfully imploded in the 1980s. But it was a difference in degree rather than in kind. The important thing is to recognise that these dynamics exist, that they derail the organisations affected, and that people should be alert to their presence and determined to combat them when they emerge in order to minimise the damage that results.
It is up to people better versed in life within the far left in Australia than I am to determine whether these things, in their entirety, shed light on either SA or the CWI there. Maybe there is something in the sunshine Downunder that has created special conditions. Maybe SA, and the CWI in Australia have people and groups within their ranks who hold very different views from their leaders on core issues; maybe dissent is cherished; maybe the leaders are defeated from time to time on important issues, and even replaced (something, 44 years on, which has yet to happen with the CWI’s Peter Taaffe); maybe members lead balanced lives; maybe every waking moment isn’t devoted to their cause, and recruiting in its support; maybe they don’t believe that their organisations hold the future of the planet in their hands. But I rather doubt it.
One writer above takes comfort from the fact that SA, for example, might now be the biggest far left group in Australia — though DSP supporters disagree. It is quite something when a measure of relative insignificance, the difference between a fly and a flea, becomes viewed as an indicator of success. Weighted against what the CWI at any rate always referred to internally as “the tasks imposed on us by history”, SA looks really to be no further forward than when it started.
The far left has been around for many decades in its Trotskyist guise. This is no small amount of time for a social experiment.These decades of party building activity have created probably thousands of Trotskyist splinters, sects and sectlets, many more thousands of disillusioned ex-members, exhausted activists — and absolutely nothing that can be plausibly depicted as a mass party, small or otherwise. It is a commonplace on the far left that all differences ultimately “reflect the pressure of alien class interests” — it follows that these should be purged to restore the party organism to health. The result is endless fragmentation, usually reflected in huge documents of awesome uninterest to anyone beyond the already initiated. Again: witness the recent split in the DSP. As I have said before, leftist political cults tend to become organisations of fewer and fewer people agreeing with each other about more and more issues. Always, the promise is that this time it will be different — we really do have the correct program, the most imposing leaders and the best organisational structures. Yet, in the end, it never is. Disaster hoves into view with all the predictability of a plotline in Neighbours. Whatever the intent of individual members, it is hard to see how such a chronic waste of talent, energy and resources contributes positively to human liberation. Dysfunctional group dynamics are one part of the explanation for this. It is time they were seriously addressed.
Michael Connors, June 9, 2008 (From Leftwrites) As a former member of the IS (in which the current SA has its origins) none of the events described above suprise me. They are quite mild, if anything. You are but scratching on the surface.
I can recall that it was my duty at some meetings to ensure that new or vulnerable members would be surrounded by loyal members to ensure swampy elements (the rest of the left) didn’t contaminate. There was no limit to this routine. Members living in share houses would inform branch executives that unsavourable elements were visiting. Soon enough a nominated comrade would arrive to ensure politics were kept on the straight and narrow. We felt we were doing our duty. God knows what we would have been capable of in a different era.
All members of sects have some self-responsibility. The issue is not one person or a cult of leadership, but a willingness on the part of the member to submit to very unlikely embodiments of left mysticism. I only have myself to blame for being part of that madness.
While I have my gripes with the old IS leadership, the fact is that I was the author of my own misforturne, I was the dogmatic hack eager to prove my worth to my revolutionary leaders. For some reason I viewed them with unestimable esteem. I was young.
There are many tales to tell of life in a sect, but there is only one way to allow young people on the left to know about it, and that is to live through it and hope that they come out remaining committed to some idea of democratic socialism. The standard life of the member who commits is around two to five years (after you leave your life is over for a while). Hopefully they come out with various skills and keep up the fight.
Maybe a book on sect life would be fun, a way of explaining the traps set by gurus and by one’s own wish to be part of something. By the way, the propaganda group routine has all been done before — it was the rationale for the insular body that the IS became in the late 1980s, when branch minutes and finances were no longer necessary, and when private lives were discussed at branch meetings and various strategies were laid out to ensure continued membership.
I finally left the IS when I was told I shouldn’t attend any more ACT UP meetings because I wasn’t recruiting anyone or selling papers (ACT UP was the leading AIDS activist group in Melbourne). The highlights of activism in my life were environmental (Franklin and Daintree blockades) and ACT UP. We made a difference. My time in the sect left was a squandered time, but oddly I learned a lot.
Greg Adler, June 9, 2008 (From Leftwrites) As a one-time member of the Socialist Labour League I find the discussion of cultlike behaviour within political organisations to be a matter of some interest.
I remember being struck by the parallels between the SLL experience and the Jim Jones experience when I read Black and White a book written by Shiva Naipul, the now deceased younger brother of VS Naipul, about the latter experience.
In the midst of the experience it was difficult to understand the nature of the organisation, particularly under the pressure of the work level demanded of members. I would have dismissed out of hand anyone who had drawn a parallel between Jones and the SLL. But, while any analogy has its limits, my reading of the Naipul book greatly helped me to come to an understanding of my experience.
Whether cult is the right desciptor for the practice of the SLL and other groups, the reflected experience certainly has that feel. In that organisation internationally the culmination was the expulsion of Healy as the result of sexual and other scandals and the implosion of the organisation.
This was an extreme outcome but stands as a warning to those who turn a blind eye to the nascent — and possibly more mature — signs of cult-like developments within their own groups.
Socrates, June 9, 2008 (From Leftwrites) It is troubling, but not surprising, that so far during this lengthy discussion there has not been any serious attempt by a senior Socialist Alternative spokesperson to rebut the worrying claims that have been raised regarding the organisational dynamics of this group.
One would think that the SA leaders had sufficient concern for their group’s public reputation to articulate some form of defence against the charges of cultic tendencies that have been made so far by many contributors.
Is there not anyone within SA who has the respect for their political beliefs to respond in kind to the points that have been raised?
On many other topics, these same leaders have not been short of the required verbiage when it comes to presenting so-called informed analyses, reports, pamphlets and essays, etc.
In this particular instance, the silence is deafening indeed — and ever so eloquent!
Ablokeimet, June 10, 2008 (From Leftwrites) The reason the left is so small is twofold:
(a) Contrary to Lenin’s belief when he wrote Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, the crisis of capitalism during World War I was conjunctural, not terminal. Only a revolution could have ended that war before 1918, since the two sides were roughly evenly matched and military technology gave a massive advantage to the defence (though by 1918, the entry of tanks was turning that around — not that people could have been confident of it at the time). Since then, the working class has not been in the position where making a revolution was a matter of pressing objective necessity.
(b) The experience of the Soviet Union and the “Communist” Parties has deeply discredited communism in the eyes of the working class. Not only was the Soviet Union a repressive tyranny of monumental proportions, but it was a failure in its own terms. Far from “overtaking and surpassing the USA”, the Soviet Union fell in screaming heap while, to avoid a similiar fate, China has adopted Deng Xiao-Ping’s doctrine that “to get rich is glorious”. Meanwhile, the “Communist” Parties in opposition were such authoritarian and mendacious beasts that they gave workers no confidence that things would be any different after they took power from how things were in the Soviet Union.
The environment for the non-Stalinist Left is therefore extremely unfavourable. Things were aggravated by fundamental problems amongst both the Trotskyists and the Anarchists.
The Trotskyists were faced after World War II with the stablisation and geographic expansion of Stalinism, a contingency that Trotsky’s theory had seemed to rule out. Trotskyism was thrown into a crisis from which it has never recovered. While the Old Man might have had the political and intellectual authority to revise the theory appropriately, he’d been knocked off with an ice pick by Stalin’s agent. His followers, making conflicting revisions to cope with the new facts, couldn’t agree among themselves.
The Anarchists, meanwhile, suffered from a very different problem. In the mid-late 1920s, a group of Russian and Ukrainian Anarchists in exile published a proposal to reorganise and revive the Anarchist movement. The proposal became known as The Platform and a furious debate ensued over the next few years. The Platformists were soundly defeated (and, in my opinion, correctly so), but the debate was couched in the wrong terms and, in rejecting the Platform, the movement also rejected all demands for political agreement. The Anarcho-Syndicalist unions were held together by more than that, but were smashed by the Fascists in many countries and the Stalinists in most others. The pernicious effect of the debate on the Platform was therefore felt after 1945, when the movement tried to recompose itself without attempting any degree of political agreement. To cut a long story short, it descended into political immaturity and incoherence. Most “Anarchist” groups today are a disgrace to their philosophy and, while many individual Anarchists are well-read and knowledgeable, virtually any idiot can and does spout unmitigated garbage as “Anarchism” without fear of being told they’re wrong.
It’s therefore entirely predictable that the left is small and marginalised. We’d probably still be marginalised even if we hadn’t suffered from the aggravating factors mentioned above. Small Trotskyist groups, possessed of the certainty that the fate of the world is in their hands, therefore get seriously disoriented. There has been an unbridgeable gap between being “relevant” and being consistent revolutionaries. Trying to bridge it, they split again and again. Because of their theory and their mode of organisation, they create large numbers of embittered ex-socialists in the process.
What, therefore, (to coin a phrase) is to be done? First, we need to realise that the history of the 20th century ensures that the working class won’t enter into full-blooded class struggle without being driven to it by overwhelming economic imperatives. Being convinced that “communism” has failed, the vast majority of workers won’t listen to real communists until they’ve written everyone else off. A mass revolutionary movement, therefore, can only be born out of economic struggle, since the economic struggle is the only thing that can break the working class from its learned anti-communism.
Second, we need to reject the distinctive feature of Leninism, the “vanguard party”. By putting too high a premium on getting all advanced workers into a single organisation implementing a single political line, the party becomes parasitic on the movement. Instead, we need to recognise that the left can only survive as the embodiment of its ideals in these unfavourable times if we accept that our ideas can reach and have effects far beyond the memberships of our organisations.
So, I have a modest proposal (god, I’ll have to stop stealing other people’s titles). We need a balanced approach, combining both engagement with the struggle and revolutionary propaganda, in the following fashion:
(a) Since only the class struggle can change the world and, prior to that, generate meaningful numbers of revolutionaries, the principal priority of the left has to be to advance the struggle. This is where I’m most immediately critical of Socialist Alternative — for not putting struggle first.
(b) Since the left, as the conscious part of the working class movement, is an essential actor in a social revolution (unconscious movements may make a February Revolution, but never an October one), the second priority of the left should be general propaganda for communism and against capitalism. Socialist Alternative is actually pretty good at this.
(c) Since it takes an organisation to implement and spread this perspective, the third priority has to be the emergence and growth of organisations with these perspectives.
Note that (b) and (c) are separate points. Spreading our ideas is more important than the organisations we use to do it. It’s nice for our organisation to grow, but the growth of healthy left organisations generally is more important. And it’s nice for left organisations generally to grow, but the spread of revolutionary left ideas is more important. By getting this wrong, Socialist Alternative is doing the left a great disservice, despite its “primitive accumulation of cadre” (a phrase of whose connotations Tom is undoubtedly well aware).
There’s an equal dose of both optimism and humility in the above. This is because we need to recognise that “the fate of the world” does not depend on us. If the left disappeared tomorrow, it would be a tragedy and an objective set-back, but the class struggle would go on and a new left would be born. Similarly, if all the left groups disappeared tomorrow, new ones would crystallise in the course of the class struggle. People think, people learn. If necessary, even the wheel can be reinvented.
So let’s get some realism into our perspectives. Maybe that way we can be a bit nicer to each other, and a better advertisement for the ideas we uphold.
Finally, just because the crisis of 1914 was merely conjunctural, it doesn’t mean that a terminal one won’t happen. I have some ideas on when it might be and how to see it coming, but that’s for another occasion.
Former (Sect) Activist, June 10, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Critics of the party-building milieu (although a party has yet to emerge from such efforts) are being asked to lead by example. I imagine this means, show us your party then. There are two responses to this. The first is that we should remember the Hippocratic oath: first, do no harm. Imagine a doctor who bumps off all or most of their patients on the grounds that “well, you have to do something”, and responds to criticism with the plea “well, why don’t you lead by example?” If something is delivering nothing but harm, the first thing you do is stop doing it. Then you think of a better way. But it is very difficult to countenance what that better way might be if you are so busy engaging in a wholly absorbing, but destructive, course of action.
Many people are engaged in varied forms of action — including in Australia activity within either the Labor Party or Greens, which they think is a more constructive way to create a better world. You many argue about this. But it is one example that stands apart from life in a sect. There are others — people engaged in community movements, trade unions and grassroots campaigns. I don’t know what kind of society will emerge from these or 101 other initiatives that people take. But I do know this: nothing will come from a life of left sectarianism.
The Kool Aid Kid, June 10, 2008 (From Leftwrites) But, Former Activist, the critics apparently have “stopped doing it”. Or they were never in a “sect” to begin with. They are free, free as the birds to show us the shining path. Beats me why they stand around tut-tutting about groups like SA rather than getting on with it.
Ablokeimet, I may not agree with everything you say but thank you for bringing some politics into this discussion.
Socrates, June 11, 2008 (From Leftwrites) The issues raised previously regarding small left groups that display questionable organisational dynamics have not been adequately answered by them. Many contributors to this discussion have concurred with Bob Gould’s original assertion that Socialist Alternative resembled an evangelical group with cultic tendencies.
The main point around which this thread devolves concerns the behaviour of such a group, not its beliefs — political, religious or whatever.
It appears that some members resort to digression or trivialisation when issues regarding their group’s behaviour are raised.
Rather than participate in any sort of meaningful discourse that might require them to question their actions or their consequences, members of cultic groups usually change the subject matter on to safer ground, or use that timeless ploy: ignore the message — shoot the messenger.
It is not all surprising that trying to have a debate with members of such groups is almost impossible.
Former (Sect) Activist, June 11, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Kool Aid, I think your comments are a bit off the mark in two main respects. Firstly, many people contributing to this site are “getting on with it” — if you mean by this engaging in political action with the intent of improving society. Bob Gould and Ed Lewis among others spring to mind — Bob in the Labor Party, Ed in the Greens. What they aren’t doing is sect building, on the quite reasonable grounds that to build a sect is a monumental exercise in futility. You seem to imagine that only people who share your enthusiasm for party building, usually marked by the presence of numerous splinters but the absence of a party, are “getting on with” anything. Rather blinkered.
Secondly, I would suggest that sometimes people who are not politically engaged can still offer useful insights into things like the internal dynamics of organisations. Marxism is not some kind of magic potion that you imbibe and become an expert on everything. On a whole range of subjects, from astronomy to biology, there are people better versed in the details than Marxists. It so happens there are a few social scientists who study groups and organisations who also have something to say that we might learn from, even if they don’t have all the answers and haven’t provided a blueprint for social transformation.
What your comments, however sardonic, don’t even begin to do is to address the substantial and meaningful criticisms that have been raised of your project — namely, that you are only building sects; creating an intolerant internal atmosphere; wasting people’s energies on frenetic activity (usually, around recruitment and “contact work”) to no useful purpose; have produced a somewhat barren intellectual climate free of useful innovation, etc. Some have even suggested that it is cult-like. Given the efforts many people invest in all this, at least before burnout and disillusionment take hold, these are useful points for discussion.
The Kool Aid Kid, June 11, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Former Activist, if other activists wish to engage in building a petty-bourgeois reformist party, running a left-wing bookshop or engaging in the sisyphean task of forming a revolutionary party out of a gathering of left-wing trade union and ALP bureaucrats, good luck to them. They are, however, engaged in tasks, that while there is a certain amount of cross-pollenation, are at their core fundamentally different to the project that groups such as SA are attempting. As such I would have thought that those critics who lambast groups such as SA, not for what they are doing but how they are doing it, would be prepared to lead by example.
Why you think I believe Marxists have a better grip on the natural sciences than trained specialists I have no idea. Feel free to point out to me where I have expressed that idea. Having said that, given that we live in a class society I would be surprised if aspects of science are not tainted with reactionary views and in particular the social sciences. Having worked closely with social psychologists I can assure you that is the case.
The accusation that building a “sect” involves wasting people’s energy on recruitment is a circular argument that requires no further attention. That the “sects” have done nothing worthwhile is an accusation I would be surprised if many contributors to this site (but not this thread) would agree with. I think Steve Jolly for one might be surprised at that accusation. And as for the “barren intellectual climate”, many of the groups hold meetings on a regular basis on theoretical topics (with discussion from the floor of course).
As I inferred earlier, show me a better way and I’ll follow. Until then I guess I’ll just have to …
Dennis Tourish, June 12, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Kool Aid Kid — an unfortunate choice of pseudonym by the way, which seems to make fun of the 900-plus people led to their deaths by drinking poison on the urging of Jim Jones in Guyana — raises a couple of points. What I suppose we can agree on is this: yes, there is a fundamental difference between the worldviews of those involved in larger organisations and movements (eg the Labor Party and Greens or trade unions) and those who prefer to spend most of their time in a sect. The former stresses engagement with existing movements, however impure; the latter assumes a more evangelical pose.
It is assumed, I would say with little or no foundation, that the sect has pretty much all the wisdom that is needed already at its fingertips. The task is to preserve the purity of its ideology and then take this unadulterated wisdom to The Masses, who will eventually sign up for the true and correct program championed by the sect. After many decades there is no sign of this happening, but then to build a sect is to display a spirit of either optimism or blindness in the face of facts that is almost heroic in its own way. As to leading by example, I would suggest that anyone involved in any kind of non-sectarian movement or political action with progressive content is doing something more worthwhile.
A comment is also in order on this notion of the extent to which the social sciences are tainted with reactionary views. The origin of this dispute on this thread, and in many other contexts, is that sect (or cult) builders think they don’t have anything to learn about organisational dynamics from anyone not involved in political struggle — particularly “Ivory Tower” academics. You are outside the class struggle, goes the sneer, so what would you know and what could we possibly learn from you? Note the logic in Kool Aid’s comment — because “aspects of science” are tainted with reactionary views (which ones, by the way — the theory of relativity? evolution?) it follows that this must be more so in the social sciences.
Even granted that there is some of this (again conveniently unspecified), it does nothing to invalidate the rather large literature on group dynamics and groupthink, which sheds interesting light on the process of conformity, over-conviction, zealatory and intolerance of dissent found in many leftist cults. It certainly cannot be dismissed. But what people like Kool Aid Kid do is ignore it utterly — before embarking on another huge effort at “party building”. In this sense, sect building is a waste of people’s energies. However many meetings the sect may hold, it is scarcely arguable that since Trotsky died in 1940 no real theoretical idea of any significance has emerged from it. Nor has any sustained large scale mass movement. There is a lesson there.
Kool Aid Kid wants people to offer him/her a better way? S/he might first stop doing what s/he is doing, in order to acquire the time to think — as someone said above, the Hippocratic oath begins with the injunction to “first do no harm”. S/he might then enter into open-minded dialogue with the many people on the left who run bookshops, are in other organisations, who are engaged in other campaigns. A novel suggestion might be that such dialogue could proceed from the desire not to instruct them — the standard sect approach — but to learn from them. I doubt, however, that anyone can offer advice on how to conjure up a mass revolutionary party built around a Trotskyist program — no more than anyone can invent a perpetual motion machine, draw a round square or convert base metal into gold. But there are certainly plentiful options as to how Kool Aid Kid (and others) can more fruitfully spend their time.
Chrys, June 12, 2008 (From Leftwrites) I also think it is possible that politics itself can become a cover for the real reason people remain in these sects, which it has been argued, is to satisfy psychological needs. This is not to say that people do not arrive at a left-wing position through their own conscious reasoning, but I think people in these sects tend to overestimate the extent to which they have actually chosen the particular political orientation or set of beliefs that the group represents. It would be rare, for example, for a new member to say that they joined the group specifically because they felt that a Trotskyist approach to building a revolutionary party represented the only viable way foward. Rather, in keeping with the findings of many studies on cults, it is more often the formation of an “interpersonal bond” that brings a new member to a group (this is the “contact work” to which Gould referred). As someone commented earlier, this is the approach that has been used by cults and religious groups (such as the Mormons) for decades, and it is used because it works.
The question is, though, while it may be effective in increasing the size of a propaganda group such as Socialist Alternative, doesn’t it call into question (or at least, suggest hypocrisy in relation to) that very mythology on which these groups are often based — that, for example, the Russian Revolution was a conscious workers’ revolution based upon a developing class consciousness, that Lenin and the Bolshevik party won over the masses through the steadfastness of the party’s political program, as opposed to any “cult of personality”, authoritative or manipulative means, etc.
By contrast, the insularity and paranoid/cynical methods used by these sects to secure members suggests that they do not trust their own members (and potential members) to arrive at their “opinions” if they are left to consider the particular truth of the political program on offer through the humble means of reasoning.
Jill, Jne 13, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Is it not possible that there’s a position in between that of Chav/Kool Aid Kid on the one hand, and Dennis Tourish/Former Activist on the other?
Chav/Kool Aid Kid wants to say that there’s no need to worry about any of these issues of small-group organisation (I don’t know why, since he comes, like me, from one of the few socialist traditions in Australia that actually came fairly close to being a cult — the IS in the late 1980s, which Michael Connors talks about). Dennis Tourish and former activist suggest that any far-left socialist group will inevitably become a cult.
DT hasn’t convinced me that the second is an automatic consquequence of the first, but Chav hasn’t convinced me that the left has nothing to learn. Surely, one can be committed to trying to build an organisation of socialists who don’t want to simply prop up the Labor Party but also acknowledge that there are particular problems associated with being in small, isolated groupings? I wouldn’t have thought that that was a particularly controversial position, yet it seems to be on this thread.
BTW Chav, while I agree with your argument for attempting to build a socialist organisation, your whole “the critics should lead by example” argument is pretty dodgy. I’d guess that people criticise the small group approach because they see problems with it and yet (other than those who join the Greens or the ALP) don’t really know what the alternative is. That doesn’t completely negate the value of their criticism, surely? And using Steve Jolly as an example to back up your argument is also a bit dubious — he would have to have the least propagandist approach of anyone on the far left in Melbourne and as far as I know there is a fair bit of debate on the left as to the merit of his approach. It certainly has little in common with yours.
Chav, June 13, 2008 (From Leftwrites) “Once, while walking, Leo Tolstoy spotted in the distance the figure of a man squatting and gesturing strangely; a madman, he thought — but on drawing nearer he was satisfied that the man was attending to necessary work — sharpening a knife on a stone. Lenin was fond of citing this example.”
More on this from Chav later.
Jill, June 13, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Well, a) that’s a reference by Cliff to the split between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks (and I hope you’re not comparing divisions on the Oz far left to that), and b) if you’re suggesting that anything that looks mad must, in fact, be necessary, it’s hardly a compelling argument.
Surely you can do better, Chav.
Chav, June 13, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Chav must work now. But first say, Bolsheviks not always mass party, start small at first — “From Little Things, Big Things Grow”.
Robert Bollard, June 13, 2008 (From Leftwrites) At the height of the Cold War the standard right-wing explanation for dissent was that it was all a form of psychological deviance. Chrys’s post reminds me of a little publication by J. Edgar Hoover in the early 1950s that attempted to explain why some Americans became communists. To Hoover, it was all about a variety of pop-psychological reasons — they were seeking a group, they were dissatisfied with their life, they saw something nasty behind the woodshed … Chrys attempts to cover her/himself with the qualification: “This is not to say that people do not arrive at a left-wing position through their own conscious reasoning, but I think people in these sects tend to overestimate the extent to which they have actually chosen the particular political orientation/set of beliefs which the group represents.”
But it’s a Claytons qualification as Chrys proceeds from the (not very remarkable) observation that people are influenced by a variety of factors when they choose to join a group and that they rarely join with a complete understanding of the group’s politics, to assert that this is somehow evidence that such groups are “cults”. This argument fails a simple test of logic. By it, virtually any group from the Boy Scouts to the Young Liberals, from local sporting clubs to book clubs qualify as cults. The only exceptions would be organisations that required some intensive exam for prospective members, like the the Royal College of Surgeons or the French Trotskyist group Lutte Ouvriere.
Chrys attempts to give this a historical-political context by implying that the Russian Revolution involved a “cult of personality, or authoritative/manipulative means, etc”, In other words, the silly first-year uni students are inveigled by the arcane science of “contact work” into joining Trotskyist groups and this is somehow comparable to the way the foolish Russian workers were bemused and befuddled into following the nasty Bolsheviks. You don’t have much faith in human agency do you Chrys?
This thread began with Bob Gould raising what could have been a legitimate topic for debate — the dangers inherent in a propaganda group orientation for small groups — but raising it in such a snarky way that it inevitably degenerated into a forum for Trot-baiting by a range of the usual suspects. Intespersed with this has been the occasional cranky reply by Socialist Alternative members, which have been at times less than constructive, though it’s hard to imagine how anyone could constructively reply to the political equivalent of “when did you stop beating your wife?”
However, for what it’s worth, as someone who was a member of Socialist Alternative and its predecessor organisations over many years I can at least defend the theory if not the current practice of the organisation. What I always found attractive about the propaganda group orientation was its realism and modesty. The organisation never considered itself to be “the vanguard” because its conception of a vanguard wasn’t a “spotless banner” or a set of transitional demands but an organisation of sufficient size and social weight to (at times) lead the working class or a significant section thereof in struggle.
Socialist Alternative accepts that it can’t do that and is condemned as a consequence by a variety of people including, ironically, those for whom the idea of a “vanguard” is anathema.
The $50,000 question is, then, how can an organisation which accepts that it will build primarily on the basis of propaganda work avoid becoming sterile and hopelessly “propagandist”? That isn’t an easy question. I understand that one of the reasons the organisation focuses on the campuses is because it is an area where it can (as well as, obviously, recruit) actually lead in a small way — have an organic relationship with a larger audience.
My only other observation regarding my time in the group was that it appeared at its healthiest when there were significant events and movements to which it could relate — particularly in the early 1990s. It may be that when things are quiet all left-wing organisations are doomed either to attempt artificial get-rich-quick schemes or turn inwards. But the main problem in both cases is the state of the class struggle, not the fact that some people form organisations and try to build them.
Jill, June 13, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Thanks for the history lesson, Chav. And I always do find that quotes and song titles resolve all my political questions.
Dave Latham, June 13, 2008 (From Leftwrites) I think we should be careful, as Jill suggests, not to label every small socialist group a sect or a cult. Maybe some exhibit such tendencies, I can think of one or two, but there is a lot of variation in practice and orientation towards the broader movement amongst the various groups which I don’t believe is tantamount to cultishness.
That small groups remain small is an important observation, but I don’t think we can sheet it all home to small groups by pathologising them. The small groups that remain today are the Marxist residue of the Cold War. While the Communist Parties imploded or took to Social Democracy of some hue after 1991, the only Marxist outfits remaining are Trotskyist groupings of some persuasion.
Trotskyist groups have always been small and at the periphery of the labour movement since they arose. Squeezed between Social Democratic and Stalinist/Maoist parties, Trotskyist groups were lucky to keep their heads above water. But would we say that the bigger Communist Parties, especially those implicated in power in Eurasia were less cultish? I’d say it was the other way around.
That explains in part their political isolation during the Cold War. As Dennis points out, though, after Trotsky some groups found it tough to do much original thinking — there was, and still is, an exegesis of sacred texts. That couldn’t help things.
The implosion of Stalinism was a poisoned chalice for those on the left advocating a free and equal communism. Marxists who wanted to defend a different version of socialism appeared, to anyone who might listen, as pedants who couldn’t accept the verdict on Marxism. For the most generous, history had adjudged Marxism a nice idea but one that was naturally bound to fail, to fall into the same pits again and again, because people are inherently selfish etc.
Arguments about human nature, which are abstract, in fact were probably at the foreground of a lot of people’s scepticism about Marxism. You can argue for activity as a practical and grounding necessity, which most Trotskyist groups do, but unless you deal with theoretical and historical questions no amount of heroic work will pull someone into your political orbit.
Some socialists believed that the absence of large Communist Parties opened a political space to the left of Social Democracy, but the 1990s proved to be at time in which Social Democracy — freed of the left pressure of Communism — drifted to the right. In the most abstract sense there was a massive gulf between the political trajectory of Social Democracy and the ever increasing space to its left. But small Trotskyist groups could not make up for the organisational chasm left by the absence of Communism, nor attract much political support, as Stalinism had scorched a lot of that space. The collapse of Communism did not herald potential growth of genuine Marxism and the more Social Democracy veered rightward, the more despondent did the political left become.
A tiny portion of that space has been mopped up in the rather passive realm of leftist election formations. Those formations were not responding to increasing struggle on the ground, but attempting to perhaps kick-strart or bypass the lack of activity, to achieve something in the wake of the failure of social movements and declining union membership and combativity.
In other words the small size of the Marxist left can’t be so neatly explained as the outgrowth of some internal small group bacillus. There are certainly internal problems that don’t assist, but the external situation is of enormous importance.
I won’t speak aboout the changing composition of the Social Democratic parties or their policy and political positions that have changed over time because that would take too long.
Being an active socialist is important and helps to ground an organisation, but I’d doubt very much that most socialist group members aren’t active in some campaign or workplace. The real point is whether it’s worth persisting in a small socialist group? Can one be an effective socialist in a larger Social Democratic formation or in a smaller group?
There are issues both ways, but we haven’t considered so far the problems with Social Democracy. The German SPD pre-World War I was, in relative terms, much more powerful than any Social Democratic party today. Its reach was ubiquitous, the SPD had its fingers in every pie, from sports clubs to trade unions, as well as producing about 90 daily newspapers. The problem for Social Democracy, or those on the left flank, is that when a crisis hits, the tensions become pronounced and snap, or the left tends to accommodate to the right — ie a politics of conciliation.
One might snap off a large chunk that is more organically linked to the labour movement, but then one has to start making hay while the storm is raging. If politics is the art of timing, splits in the midst of crisis lead to internal confusion, a foundering for direction, not to mention the practical organisational necessities — papers, branch locations, internal structure and set-up, etc. That the USPD, which split from the SPD, proved to be an ineffective and wavering centrist formation is a good example of the problems inherent in the Social Democratic model.
I’m not certain about these questions, and looking back historically isn’t always enourmously informative, but let’s leaven this conversation with a bit more rounded approach to party building and the Marxist project.
My suspicion reading the above comments is that some opposed to the Marxist “cult” are really opposed to the Marxist project: what makes them as crazed as a David Koresh or Jim Jones is their wacky ideas. Marxists, of course, think they are on the right track politically, but doesn’t also someone in the Labor Party, Liberal Party or Greens? I agree that there are problems in socialist groups — for me an obsession with perspectives, panicky priority shifts, and an unhelpful division between adopting a narrow theoretical versus activist orientation — but I think we need some perspective here, a bit more history and less pathology.
Former Sect Activist, June 13, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Some very useful points above. Not, however, from Chav. With evident satisfaction he cites a formula Lenin often used, from Tolstoy. Lenin was also fond of observing that big oaks grew from small acorns.
This is about the least useful part of Lenin’s ouvre. Even Tolstoy might have concluded that if he saw a man squatting and gesturing strangely for 70-odd years, without having succeeded in sharpening his knife, there might be something a bit odd about his perspectives. There has been much strange gesturing from far left groups, and I did some myself, but no sign yet of a sharp knife emerging the other end. Time for a rethink?
It’s interesting too that Chav automatically seeks recourse in the writings of Lenin, much perhaps as an evangelical Christian quotes the Bible. Of course, historical quotation has a role to play, but with far left groups sacred texts, used as a crutch and a first resort in a discussion, have taken the place of fresh thinking.
thanhhuong, June 13, 2008 (From Leftwrites) It looks like Chrys touched a tender nerve of Robert’s. Ouch! Don’t touch me there! I’m fully autonomous and in complete control of everything I do. I make all the decisions around here, and they are good ones and give me credit for them. Don’t talk to me about genes or conditioning! Don’t talk to me. I’m making decisions!
I wonder who is scared about being open-minded and considering the possible role of the of the psychological in people forming groups, which may be, ahem, the origins of the “social” and why it is such a strong phenomenon today despite “individualism”. I wonder if the example had been the Catholic Church whether the nerve would have been so painfully tweaked? Are we not playing by the same rules? Are we not applying the same method of analysis to all groups? Are left-wing ones privileged? Why so?
“S/he might then enter into open-minded dialogue with the many people on the left who run bookshops, are in other organisations, who are engaged in other campaigns.”
Oxymoron: once you join a group, or subvert one, your open-mindedness is questionable.
Tony Hartin, June 13, 2008 (From Leftwrites) “I wonder if the example had been the Catholic Church whether the nerve would have been so painfully tweaked? Are we not playing by the same rules? Are we not applying the same method of analysis to all groups?”
No. This is being aimed specifically at a left-wing Marxist organisation, whose crime seems to be organising a moderately sucessful public meeting. There are some well-meaning comments in this thread — but the bulk are standard red-baiting.
If anyone wants to have an influence on SA, it’s almost futile from this list. You could try a democratic method and argue for your ideas, loyally, from inside the organisation.
If, on the other hand, the aim is to draw lessons in order to set up a new revolutionary group, let’s hear the method for withstanding all the pressures that the current period brings to bear.
Mark, June 13, 2008 (From Leftwrites) While the sect phenomenon with all its unwholesome features referred to in the current discussion of Socialist Alternative and its meeting in Newtown is common amongst smallish groups of various stripes in the anti-capitalist milieu in Australia and elsewhere, this is not necessarily always the case. It can be avoided. For a discussion of how a smallish grouping can avoid becoming a sect in the Australian context via involvement in the class struggle and assisting workers’ self-organisation and direct action — see Anarcho-syndicalism: Catalyst for Workers’ Self-organisation”, Not Leftist Sect Building; and Anarcho-syndicalist Strategy for Australia Today.
Former Sect Activist, June 13, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Tony H above suggests that Socialist Alternative has been criticised here for “organising a moderately successful public meeting”. I thought that it was being criticised for holding a meeting without providing within it the opportunity for discussion? This is a rather different thing.
I would also query the view that the only right and democratic way to influence Socialist Alternative is by joining and debating with its members internally. I thought that we also influenced each other by dialogue and debate, without necessarily having to belong to the same organisation? Tony’s point suggests a rather insular view to me. Why shouldn’t people from different strands of opinion seek to debate, discuss, influence and change each other’s views? There isn’t anything remotely anti-democratic about people debating their differences with Socialist Alternative — to suggest that unless they belong to the organisation there is no value in such an exchange betrays I would suggest a rather narrow-minded and sect-like mentality. So-called internal debate isn’t the only, or even the best, way to scrutinise ideas, compare programs and work out what needs to be done. But it is an excellent mechanism for creating a herd-like mentality, conformity and groupthink.
The last suggestion Tony makes is that if someone has lessons about how to set up a new revolutionary group, let’s hear them. Oh, dear. There are thousands of so-called revolutionary groups out there, and the last thing we need is another one. Many of us query whether you need them at all, in their existing form. However, there have been plentiful suggestions along the lines that activist groups need to show more respect for diversity; embrace rather than crush internal dissent; engage in less frenetic activity around such things as recruitment, so that members have more time to think; create a reading brief beyond sacred texts (Lenin and Trotsky aren’t the last word on everything); stop deifying leaders; be less shrill; don’t assume that you have all the answers; place less emphasis on “internal discussion” and more on engagement with other strands of thought. Quite a few points for action, I think.
Beyond that, 70 years of Trotskyist sect-building is rather a long time. And what years they have been. There have been wars, genocide, revolutions, counter-revolutions, colonial insurrections, global warming, famine, massive trade union struggles, coups and counter-coups. Yet in all that time a sustained, mass Trotskyist current has never developed.
How long do you have to give it before concluding that it is actually leading you nowhere, and that maybe something along the above lines might be more productive?
Tony Hartin, June 13, 2008 @ 11:18 pm (From Leftwrites) “… show more respect for diversity; embrace rather than crush internal dissent; engage in less frenetic activity around such things as recruitment, so that members have more time to think; create a reading brief beyond sacred texts” Wear sunscreen. If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. Do one thing every day that scares you. Sing. Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts. Don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours. Floss. Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.
Ablokeimet, June 13, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Chav wants the critics of Socialist Alternative to “lead by example”. It’s a fair enough demand. Some of the critics have alternatives that have been discussed (eg the Labor Party or the Greens). Mark has just posted another one. The work of the Anarcho-Syndicalist Network is quite different from both mainstream reformism and Leninism. While I have certain differences with it, it’s certainly closer to what I think appropriate than either Leninist party-building or reformist party-building.
Above, I set out an approach for left organising:
(a) Since only the class struggle can change the world and, prior to that, generate meaningful numbers of revolutionaries, the principal priority of the left has to be to advance the struggle. This is where I’m most immediately critical of Socialist Alternative — for not putting this first.
(b) Since the left, as the conscious part of the working class movement, is an essential actor in a social revolution (unconscious movements may make a February Revolution, but never an October), the second priority of the left should be general propaganda for communism and against capitalism. Socialist Alternative is actually pretty good at this.
(c) Since it takes an organisation to implement and spread this perspective, the third priority has to be the emergence and growth of organisations with these perspectives.
The way I apply this is that my major political work is in my union. I try to build the union and strengthen it against the employers. I fight the bureaucracy constantly over democratic procedure and, when necessary, industrial policy. And I constantly argue that there is a fundamental conflict of interest between employer and employee (it could be called, perhaps, for the benefit of Trotskyists, a “transitional” argument).
Union work is not, however, all I do. Also important is a small group of which I am a member: Melbourne Anarchist Communist Group.
Our group engages in general propaganda for Anarchism and a class-struggle strategy for changing the world. While we’d like to recruit a few more members, we don’t see recruitment as anywhere near our primary objective. Instead, we’re more interested in trying to advance the struggle and spread revolutionary class consciousness.
This manifests itself in a couple of ways. Firstly, we don’t monopolise our members’ time. While we have expected levels of activity, they are lower than Leninist groups expect. This is more sustainable and I hope it will avoid burn-out. Secondly, instead of hassling people into a circular and parasitic pattern of “buy the paper/join the party/sell the paper”, we can concentrate on spreading our political ideas as far as possible.
Have we had an effect? Well, I think we have, in a modest way. The Anarchist movement in Australia is being influenced in our general direction. There is more interest in organisation and in class politics. There is now a chance of the foundation of a federation with a class-struggle orientation. And I think we’ve been rehabilitating the idea of Anarchism amongst wider circles of working class activists in Melbourne. Naturally this isn’t a huge amount, but we’re a very small group and we’ve had to start a long way behind scratch.
You might notice that my contributions above haven’t addressed the question of cults. That’s because I’m not close enough to any of the Leninist groups to make the call on whether they’ve gone that far. I can, however, say that there is a tendency, to a degree, towards it in Leninism and it needs to be guarded against. Some groups in Australia appear to be doing so better than others, but I’ll leave it to people closer to the action to say whether any have failed.
Jill, June 14, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Tony H: “No. This is being aimed specifically at a left-wing marxist organisation, whose crime seems to be organising a moderately sucessful public meeting. There are some well-meaning comments in this thread — but the bulk are standard red-baiting.”
Oh come on, Tony. It’s hardly red-baiting. I’d love to think that this site was read broadly enough for us to be red-baited, but it’s hardly the case. The majority of people posting on this thread are either members of far-left groups or reasonably sympathetic ex-members.
And I don’t think anyone seriously thinks the discussion is about SA and whether they had discussion from the floor at a public meeting. Everyone on this thread has organised enough public meetings to know that sometimes they focus on public discussion and sometimes people come to hear the main speakers. SA can hold any format of meeting they like but I’d say that not having discussion from the floor would be extremely rare. This is hardly the main point.
“If on the other hand the aim is to draw lessons in order to set up a new revolutionary group, then let’s hear the method for withstanding all the pressures that the current period brings to bear.”
Isn’t that what people are trying to discuss? Sure, there are some people on this thread who think that the whole project of building small socialist groups is doomed to failure (again, hardly red-baiting and hardly surprising given the lack of success for this project surely?). But the majority of people I’d say are committed to building the left and are actually trying to talk about “withstanding all the presures the current period brings to bear”. If people don’t have any amazing ideas, other than trying to engage with political struggle when it occurs — well, that’s no reason to not try to pursue the discussion further. Why so defensive? Can’t we be confident enough in socialist politics to have the discussion about some of the problems we face?
Dave Latham, June 14, 2008 (From Leftwrites) “Seventy years of Trotskyist sect building is rather a long time. And what years they have been. There have been wars, genocide, revolutions, counter-revolutions, colonial insurrections, global warming, famine, massive trade union struggles, coups and counter-coups. Yet in all that time a sustained, mass Trotskyist current has never developed.”
I would have thought that the major political formations might have more responsibility for genocide, wars, famines, coups and trade union struggles than Trotskyist groups, after all they are implicated in power.
You can’t have it both ways, slagging off Trotskyisy groups for irrelevancy and then blaming them for the direction that the world takes under the auspices of other parties.
If your point is to state that Trotskyist parties have not capitalised on these events, then state why they haven’t. Don’t make insipid insular tautologies like Trotskyist groups have failed to grow because they are sects. Once you take serious stock of the reasons for the faiure of such groups to grow, which as I stated above relate largely, but not solely, to external political and economic pressures, then you might view that failure as having something to do with the environment and factors which they operate in.
There are issues within Trotskyist groups that affect the way they relate to the external environment and process information, which is important, but it is hardly unique. The whole thread was started off by Socialist Alternative’s apparent indifference to debate drawn from one meeting or series of meetings. When Labour launches its policy platform at conference or at election time, there’s not much debate going on there.
If Socialist Alternative or other Trotskyist groups consistently had meetings that did not invite discussion, that might be something to worry about. There is a distinction to be made between unadalterated pedagogy and advancing a political line. If I’m at work and hear a scab slagging off the union, I will jump in and defend it. The view that ideas of all persuasions should be welcomed and not challenged is utter bollocks.
It’s easy to argue for pluralism when you operate in the social terrain of trendy identity politics, where people join through assocation with like-minded people in the inner city. But if you attempt to build a political organisation that attempts to reach beyond the ghettoes, that requires a program that is more overt, and attendantly more difficult and prone to fissures.
Tony Hartin, June 14, 2008 (From Leftwrites) “If people don’t have any amazing ideas, other than trying to engage with political struggle when it occurs — well, that’s no reason to not try to pursue the discussion further.” True, but there’ve been 120 comments so far and the signal to shite ratio is quite low. This all started because Bob couldn’t wait for his debate to be organised and decided to launch it himself from the back of a hall. The sectarian title to this thread encourages just that.
Former Sect Activist, June 14, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Earlier I made the point, and I repeat, “Seventy years of Trotskyist sect building is rather a long time. And what years they have been. There have been wars, genocide, revolutions, counter-revolutions, colonial insurrections, global warming, famine, massive trade union struggles, coups and counter-coups. Yet in all that time a sustained, mass Trotskyist current has never developed”.
Of course, I am not suggesting that Trotskyist organisations have responsibility for the world’s problems — it should be entirely obvious (unless you are Dave Latham) that I am suggesting there are important lessons from the fact that the Trotskyist groups have not taken advantage of those problems that have occurred. Dave, on the other hand, seems to favour the view that the main reason that mass Trotksyist parties haven’t developed is “external pressure” rather than their internal dynamics, method of organising, doomed perspectives, etc. But these “external pressures” are simply the real world. It is a world of crisis, war, poverty, struggle and occasional stability.
If after 70 years these “external pressures” have never, in any country in the world, provided conditions for your current to grow, doesn’t this rather suggest that it is unlikely the party building model you advocate will ever find a hospitable climate? What kinds of “external pressures” (ie real world) do you anticipate emerging in the future that you haven’t already experienced that would suddenly bring this project to fruition? If your party building project requires some set of utterly exceptional conditions, such as only occur say in one country once every 100 years for the space of about six months, this would also seem to me to be some admission of failure and irrelevance.
Dave Latham, June 15, 2008 (From Leftwrites) That’s very clever, but not very illuminating. Democracy and liberalism took a little while to gel as well — it’s a good thing you didn’t live in the 18th century, but given your pragmatic disposition, I suspect you might have been a Burkean if you lived then, so it wouldn’t have mattered.
I might have thought 70 years was a pretty small timespan on which to make adjudications on Trotskyism in the context of history. Comprehension, an historical view and critical thinking doesn’t appear to be your strong suit, but I might have thought that you could at least have had some appreciation of the factors that made it difficult for Trotskyism to breathe. To my recollection, Stalinism was rather successful in smothering the political activity of people in the Eastern bloc as well.
Even anti-communists like Karl Popper would never say never, but you are ready to make the call rather early. Emotion is a powerful factor in political thinking, that’s for sure.
Former Sect Activist, June 15, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Dave, it’s not just that the Trotskyist party building project has been around for 70 years — it is that it has made no progress whatever during those 70 years. It is still a fractured, splintered, sect-ridden irrelevance to actually occurring struggles in every country where it has a base, without the slightest sign anywhere of imminent transformation into a mass force.
You might have a point if you had ever come close, or a major change was about to occur. Instead, in every country that I know of, the tendency has been for Trotskyist organisations to fragment, stay small, be bypassed by whatever popular movements actually erupt. I would repeat the key question: “What kinds of external pressures (ie real world) do you anticipate emerging in the future that you haven’t already experienced that would suddenly bring this project to fruition?”
I don’t think that misplaced analogies with the growth of liberalism in the 18th century (which did actually bring over a 70-year period some progress towards the adoption of liberal democratic ideas and forms, however unevenly) are appropriate. But in progress towards achieving its goals (the creation of mass currents challenging for state power), the Trotskyist party building project can point to — nothing. It is as if a man started building a cathedral, but decades later can only point to a molehill.
For every extenuating fact that you can produce (eg the grip of Stalinism) I can adduce other objective conditions (poverty, growing wealth inequality, wars, colonial insurrections) that provided some counterbalancing opportunity for your experiment to take root. What confluence of events are you anticipating that you haven’t already been through, many times?
Why should your project suddenly take flight when it has regularly stalled until now? Could your view be that up until the launch of Socialist Alternative every other current had misinterpreted Trotsky’s doctrines, but now that you have them properly figured out you’ll be able to overcome objective problems and win over the masses at long last? It is, maybe, all down to the superior wisdom of the particularly brilliant leadership of Socialist Alternative.
Chav, June 15, 2008 (From Leftwrites) ’ Emotion is a powerful factor in political thinking, that’s for sure.’ It is indeed, and Former Activist seems intent on squandering their reserves in attacking the far left rather than, as they have been invited to do numerous times before, lead by example.
thanhhuong, June 15, 2008 (From Leftwrites) “Even anti-communists like Karl Popper would never say never, but you are ready to make the call rather early.”
Flashback 1980: My dear mum said much the same thing to me, except she was referring to non-Christians and not anti-commies, and spoke of Charles Darwin instead of the Big Pop.
My big three of the safely Irrefutable are: Communism, Christianity and romanticism, as they all safely say it’ll happen one day long after we are gone. Irrefutability of the never-to-be-experienced-and-live-to-tell-the-story future. I could have been more unkind and added Scientology to the list, but it has been a long day.
I like eating my icecream, not just anticipating what it is going to taste like “one day”.
Logician, June 15, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Chav seems to think that he has a trump card — the repeated suggestion that critics should lead by example, which means that they aren’t offering an alternative. Well, I think many people here think they have offered plentiful alternatives! How many do you need? But the point is wrong in any event. Criticism stands or falls irrespective of whether the critic is leading by example. Imagine I see a doctor treating patients. They all die. I urge him to stop so that we can develop other forms of treatment. His response is: “But why don’t you lead by example? Where’s your alternative?” It would not be considered much of a response, and I don’t think that Chav’s argument here — the only one s/he makes to the numerous criticisms raised — is much of a response either.
Ablokeimet, June 15, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Former Sect Activist: “It’s not just that the Trotskyist party building project has been around for 70 years — it is that it has made no progress whatever during those 70 years.”
Actually, this is not quite correct. There are examples of Trotskyist groups getting to quite a reasonable size. The really illuminating thing is what happens to them when they do.
In 1964, for example, the LSSP in Sri Lanka was the pride of the Fourth International. It was a mass party with a solid vote and even a reasonable representation in parliament. And then they went and spoilt it all by joining the capitalist government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike. The United Secretariat had to expel them and they drifted further rightwards in subsequent years.
More recently, in France both the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire and Lutte Ouvriere are technically Trotskyist groups. In 2002, the two parties together received more than 10 per cent of the vote in the presidential elections — a result that was quite remarkable, and the more so because the “Communist” Party was reduced to 3.37 per cent. Both parties, however, are widely criticised by other left groups for being reformist and capitulating to backward pressures (LO’s position on the headscarf laws being a particularly controversial example). The LCR is even, I have heard, considering the formal abandonment of Trotskyism.
This is a demonstration that, when the working class doesn’t feel a strong compulsion to make a revolution, large revolutionary groups are impossible. Revolutionaries then face a conflict between being relevant and being consistent. Over time, the history of most subjectively Trotskyist groups is that of a gradual dilution of principle in (usually fruitless) pursuit of size and influence. If Lenin came back today, he would spit on most groups that describe themselves as Leninist. He would tear strips off them for class collaboration and for subordinating themselves to reformists. And he’d then find himself facing the same conflict that has kept all consistent revolutionary groups small in the last 60 or 70 years — that a mass revolutionary movement can’t be formed at a time when most workers don’t want to make a revolution.
It’s not fair, therefore, to criticise Trotskyist groups for being small and say that the answer lies in getting involved in something bigger. I criticise them instead for what they do and particularly for some tactics used in the attempt to get bigger. What we need, I believe, is a left that is more consistently principled in its revolutionary politics and recognises the futility of the get-rich-quick schemes offered by opportunism. Instead, we need to accept that, for the time being, we will remain a tiny minority and work at advancing the class struggle as best we can. And be somewhat kinder and more comradely in our relations.
One day, the tide will turn, and the more constructive effort we have put into advancing the class struggle, the closer that day will be.
Former Sect Activist, June 15, 2008 (From Leftwrites) I appreciate the reply from Ablokeimet, which was thoughtful and tried to deal with the issues. Personally, I remain unconvinced. Though the Trotskyist groups got a reasonable vote in France, when measured against the goals set by Trotsky in 1938 — world socialist revolution, and the capture of state power in country after country — it is still fairly risible. The one exception is of course Sri Lanka, post-war — but, again, that came to naught in the end. Militant had some influence in Britain in the 1980s, but couldn’t get beyond 8000 members, before collapsing as well.
We are left with the suggestion that “one day, the tide will turn”. As Mr Micawber would say, “something will turn up”. However, in what way this will happen, and what kind of events that haven’t been felt before, I can’t imagine, nor does Ablokeimet explain. There have been numerous opportunities for the Trotskyist party-building project to succeed. I have written of 70 years, but really I could write of nearly 90, since the formation of the Communist International by Lenin. This is not a short time, and when you look at Trotskyist groups in the context of the world situation all I can see is a state of sectarian irrelevance, at huge cost to the individuals involved. The reluctance of most to look critically at their own practice is not least among the problems.
Mannie De Saxe, June 15, 2008 (From Leftwrites) I have been in Australia for 30 years and this is what I have observed: The IS/Socialist Action/ISO/Socialist Alternative groups from the 1970s onwards have had about 20 core people who are still involved with leadership or whatever else you would call it in running such groups.
In that time these groups have recruited hundreds who have been enthusiastic members for a certain period, but they have been involved in a revolving door process. People have come, people have gone, but few have stayed.
And the main question is why? We know that when terrible things happen in the world around us like the Bush-Blair-Howard wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and other places, we lefties rally around the flag in a manner of speaking, but do they stay in the organisations that organised the rallies and demos?
The answer is “no”.
Look at the other left groups in Australia, and probably around the world and the same situation exists, so, please explain!
Dave Latham, June 16, 2008 (From Leftwrites) I might add that Trotsky had a reasonable influence in Mexico. I thought Trotskyist groups had a bit of influence in Spain or thereabouts circa 1936-39.
As sect activist should understand as an ex-Marxist, a Marxist party is not the same as a reformist one. As Abloke alluded to, Marxist groups would prefer to remain small and more cohered than large and loose so that they might be in the best position to take advantage of a profound economic-political crisis, rather than rend themselves at a critical historical juncture.
As I stated above I certainly do think there are issues with Trotskyist groups that affect their growth — prespectives, panicky priority shifts, obsession about adopting theoretical versus activist orientation, etc — you might want to pop your spectacles on.
“For every extenuating fact that you can produce (eg the grip of Stalinism) I can adduce other objective conditions (poverty; growing wealth inequality; wars; colonial insurrections) that provided some counterbalancing opportunity for your experiment to take root. What confluence of events are you anticipating that you haven’t already been through, many times?”
Evidently Stalin estimated Trotskyist groups more highly than you do, labelling Trotskyists as fascists and treating them accordingly during World War II. How might your “objective” factors like poverty, wars etc have assisted Trotskyists in this instance? It’s hard to countervail anything when you are being hounded as a mortal enemy west and east.
You might not have noticed, but the Communist Parties were reasonably sized in the west and had even larger influence in trade unions. After World War II, Trotskyist groups were hard-pressed to make inroads in trade unions or political campaigns where Communists predominated. It’s not simply a question of there being “other objective conditions” that would become the sole preserve of Trotskyists. The Trotskyist groups fished from the same pond and could not outflank or outmanouevre CPs — they were simply too small. A Troskyist group could only fight with ideas, but even on that score they were labelled as pedants and wreckers. The pool to fish from amongst workers was always small in the presence of CPs and that space shrivelled to very little for Trotskyist groups.
But in the 1960s, Trotskyism enjoyed something of an influence in light of the problems created for Western CPs by the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the Prague Spring in 1968. Of course a large section of the left was put off socialism in general because of Stalinism, so the field was limited. Until their demise in 1991, CPs were larger than Trotskyist groups, but post-1991 as I stated above, the end of Stalinism acted not to liberate Marxism from Stalinism but to make the Marxist project appear to be a failed one.
The history of Stalinism and all its other offshoots still casts an enormous shadow over Marxism and its credibility and that won’t be easily overcome by objective conditions. I’d also state that the objective conditions have not been so severe as to overcome people’s cynicism concerning Marxism.
There are obviously issues with revolving doors but it’s not as though half the Australian population has been through Trotskyist groups and have been put off. Obviously, 99 per cent of the population has never been in one and has no idea about them, how they operate or what they stand for. That is why the external situation is more telling than seeking to find the failure of Trotskyist groups in their internal regimes. One has to have gone through them to be put off them.
I’m not a member of Socialist Alternative or any other group, I’m just not embittered against them.
Bob Gould, June 16, 2008 (From Leftwrites) It’s of some interest that this discussion has had 130 contributions. I think it’s likely that a large number of people, in the IS tradition in particular, have read a lot of this exchange. I’ve had hints, but no solid evidence, that this includes the membership of Socialist Alternative, despite the vigorous attempts of the SA leadership to insulate them from external discussion. It’s striking, still, that in a discussion like this, none of the central leaders of Socialist Alternative have seen fit to participate in any meaningful way. One might have expected a more rounded statement of Socialist Alternative’s propaganda perspective.
Socialist Alternative has left its resident commissar for Leftwrites, Chav, and a couple of relatively loyal ex-members such as Dave Latham, to carry the can.
I make no apology for the way I kicked off this discussion. It has become de rigeuer to attack me for the supposedly uncomradely tone of the initial post, but any serious reflection invites the unanswerable point that my mickey-taking at Mick Armstrong’s expense is dwarfed by the ferociously uncomradely internal rhetoric about other groups and socialists inside Socialist Alternative.
Chav’s interventions provide a good flavour of the way the views of other socialists are treated inside Socialist Alternative.
At least my initial post got the attention of a lot of people in and around Socialist Alternative, which was my political intention. It’s a bit rich, really, considering the constant, belligerent hostility of the Socialist Alternative leaders to pretty well all other leftists, for the junior representatives and political attorneys of that organisation to whinge about the tone of the discussion.
In fact, the Socialist Alternative leaders don’t want any discussion at all unless they have total control of the its framework.
In the past 30 or 40 posts, the discussion has polarised between the Socialist Alternative view and the views of others who have been rather badly burnt by propaganda groups, who mostly reject the idea of independent socialist organisation. I reject Socialist Alternative’s view and I’m still working on another article contesting Mick’s views, based on a critique of his pamphlet about the acorns.
I also reject the other view, although I understand the considerable irritation and pain felt by people who’ve been through the propaganda group mincer. Such groups are great destroyers of activists and cadres.
Independent socialist organisation is still a burning necessity but the form of it has to take account of past errors.
My view is that none of the socialist groups, or the groups and individuals with a socialist orientation working in the Greens, the Labor Party and the anarchist movement, have any possibility in the real world of eclipsing each other by a process of individual recruitment to the particular group, denouncing all others.
What we really face is a period of public discussion among socialists with a minimum of exclusions, directed towards a rational regroupment of socialist forces.
To this end, I have a very modest proposal. What’s to prevent us all holding some kind of socialist day school on a Sunday in the major cities: say Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth initially? In a carefully organised way, with plenty of discussion from the floor, the different point of view could be put. Just one day of prepared discussion on socialist organisation and history, possibly with written contributions beforehand.
Such discussion could include Socialist Alternative, Solidarity, the DSP and RSP, the Socialist Party, representatives of the anarcho-syndicalists, socialists working in the Labor Party, the Greens and the trade union movement, and even smaller groups in cities where they exist.
Such a serious discussion might just be the beginning of a useful clarification of ideas and orientations. The deal should be that the groups that agree to speak should make a serious effort to get their members along.
That’s my modest proposal. What do people think?
Dave Latham, June 16, 2008 (From Leftwrites) “Socialist Alternative has left its resident commissar for Leftwrites, Chav, and a couple of relatively loyal ex-members such as Dave Latham, to carry the can.”
Never been a member of Socialist Alternative. I have no idea about their internal processes, haven’t been to any meetings, etc. I was once active in the IS but haven’t been since about 2000.
Chav, June 16, 2008 (From Leftwrites) The Crime: Sectarian accusations without evidence. Exhibit A: “despite the vigorous attempts of the SA leadership to insulate them from external discussion.” Exhibit B:“the ferociously uncomradely internal rhetoric about other groups and socialists inside Socialist Alternative.” Exhibit C:“Chav’s interventions provide a good flavour of the way the views of other socialists are treated inside Socialist Alternative.” Exhibit D:“the Socialist Alternative leaders don’t want any discussion at all unless they have total control of the framework of the discussion.”
The Verdict: Guilty.
The Sentence: To remain Bob Gould for the term of your natural life.
Socrates, June 16, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Mannie de Saxe described the revolving door nature of some groups that had a permanent core of only a couple of dozen stalwarts. Obviously, the reason they leave is that there is nothing of substance to hold members permanently to such a group.
My observation of such groups is that they misunderstand the importance of human psychology and behaviour and excessively focus on a limited period of history, while the rest of the world is constantly changing. Despite the efforts by some contributors to divert the thrust of this thread on to their preferred comfort zone of a narrow historical perspective (Marxism, Leninism and Trotskyism), the basic issue still remains as per the initial post by Bob Gould.
These diversionary tactics remind me of earlier attempts made by SA members when I tried to engage them in conversation regarding socialism; instead of addressing the matter at hand, they adopted the mode of endlessly repeating descriptions of distant historical events.
The strategy of diversion or digression is a common feature of those who are narrowly focused on a singular obsession. Religious groups (like Jehovah’s Witness and Scientology) always attempt to shift the discussion on to their own specific field of interest, regardless of the actual topic.
They dogmatically insist that all answers to humanity’s problems can only be found in their group’s belief system. This is typical.
Chav, June 16, 2008 (From Leftwrites) “Despite the efforts by some contributors to divert the thrust of this thread on to their preferred comfort zone of a narrow historical perspective (Marxism, Leninism and Trotskyism), the basic issue still remains as per the initial post by Bob Gould.”
Well, I for one am also sick to death of socialists going on and on about socialism. I’d like to hear more from them on quantum physics, mind control techniques and other topics they claim not to be experts in.
Dave Latham, June 16, 2008 (From Leftwrites) “Despite the efforts by some contributors to divert the thrust of this thread on to their preferred comfort zone of a narrow historical perspective (Marxism, Leninism and Trotskyism).”
You can hardly set about depicting socialists groups as cults then turn around and accuse them of diverting the conversation towards their narrow historical perspective. For crying out loud, the whole thread has been about socialism. Are socialists meant to respond to the charges against socialism by not referring to socialism?
“The strategy of diversion or digression is a common feature of those who are narrowly focused on a singular obsession.”
What’s the singular obsession exactly? Last time I read a socialist rag there were articles on war, trade unions, free education, imperialism, neoliberalism, Aboriginal issues, refugees, etc. If you are part of any organisation that attempts to change the world, eg trade unions, thinktanks, chamber of commerce, labour party, etc, people tend to get a bit obsessive about their views. That’s what happens in political organisations, people think they have the best approach and put it forward, but I wouldn’t have thought socialists had narrow, singular, interests as such, just a different analysis and methodology.
Liz Thompson, June 16, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Chav, perhaps people are suggesting that socialists might want to talk about things apart from 1917. Like, I don’t know, just to pick a random crazy idea out of a hat, the taxi driver blockade.
Seven posts on what seemed to me to be an incredibly significant wildcat strike, taken by drivers who are not all small business owners told me lots about the state of the left. What it told me is that the left groups that exist are far from the forefront of analysis of changing forms of class struggle, such as the relationship of low-wage labour markets to borders (student visas and 457 visas). Actually, I know that already but it was just a pretty illustration for me, really.
I appreciated Dave Latham’s post on it, because it suggested that perhaps the left’s analysis of the industry is stuck in the dark ages — which it is. That in itself is a valuable starting point for looking at what is wrong with the left groups.
Some basic stats here: and the corruption of the union movement in that sector of industry has led to the creation of a workers’ alliance of the mostly migrant cabbies in New York, which one can read more about in Biju Matthew’s Taxi: cabs and capitalism in New York city
What also interested me was that the most in-depth analysis of organisation and the future of how cabbies plan to defend themselves is in the local South Asian papers, not in our lefty rags. Anyway, I realise this is related to another post. I hadn’t bothered previously, but I figured this might be an example of the limitations of harking back to the good old days of the revolution. The world is moving on, and I don’t see any small left groups providing any real analysis of how, why and what might be coming next. Some of which I think you can see in the cabbie strike.
Jill, June 16, 2008 (From Leftwrites) This thread is getting so long that it’s getting increasingly difficult to get a handle on. But it seems to suggest that there’s a series of different debates which could separated out into new threads, if people are interested.
There’s a debate about (I think) the pros and cons of a predominantly propaganda approach to building a socialist group — which Bob Gould has suggested take place as a meeting but could also be done online, if anyeone wanted to write something more detailed than has been done here so far.
There’s a slightly different (perhaps more fundamental) debate, currently being had between Dennis/Former Activist, David Latham and Abloke about whether the history of far-left group building shows that the project as a whole is fundamentally flawed or impossible.
And Liz seems to be suggesting a more detailed analyis of the taxi driver dispute.
There’s probably some other debates as well — feel free to start new threads.
Chrys, June 16, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Such a meeting sounds like a good idea. Not only would it be an opportunity to discuss these matters further, but it would itself go a way to disproving some of the allegations (insularity, exclusivism, etc) that have been slung at some of the smaller leftist groups during this discussion if we were to see those and other groups all participating together in bipartisan discussion.
Socrates, June 16, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Jill makes a good point regarding the directions that this thread appears to be taking.
As the original issue of this thread was the behaviour and dynamics of groups like Socialist Alternative, I hope to continue in this vein. The actual issue is not big-picture socialism, trade unions, imperialism, war, poverty or climate change; these are no doubt all valid topics for discussion, but there are other forums for that purpose.
Perhaps its time to refocus on Bob Gould’s point to discuss the implications of propagandism within some groups, and not be distracted by history lessons: “SA leaders don’t want any discussions at all unless they have total control of the framework of the discussion”.
Bob Gould suggested that SA leaders are not keen on their members participating in a forum such as this. If the group is open, democratic and transparent in its dealings, why is this so?
Do they have something to hide from new recruits, or do they fear having their internal dynamics and behaviour exposed to public scrutiny?
For anyone interested in following up on these important matters, perhaps attending the next meeting of Socialist Alternative in your capital city might be instructive.
Red and Black student, June 21, 2008 (From Leftwrites) As many quarrels as I have with Gould, and however slightly self-important this article is, I don’t think he’s far off in his position on Socialist Alternative.
Liz’s post is also sound.
Browsing online forums about the revolutionary left will show the state of many groups on the left — Revleft shows a lot of Leninists are trapped in 1917, and almost every discussion descends back into something about (a) the October Revolution (b) Krondstadt, Stalin betraying the revolution (or the oppposite, Trotsky was a reactionary).
It’s historical obsession, not class-struggle politics. I think Socialist Alternative, and alot of these groups would operate better as Lenin appreciation societies.
We’ve no reason to be babbling on about great history when we’ve a future that needs to be claimed.
Jill, June 21, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Talking about history and talking about the future are hardly counterposed. Some might even say there’s a connection somewhere there between the two.
I don’t think either Bob Gould or Liz suggested that too much knowledge of history was a problem on left.
Maria, June 21, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Jill, I don’t think Red and Black Student we should disregard history completely. I think what they really meant is that obsession with only some period of history is unhelpful and unhealthy.
I noticed a lot of miscommunication in this thread because opinions and suggestions are often taken out of context.
Dave Latham, June 21, 2008 (From Leftwrites) I suspect the reason why Marxists “babble” about history is because they have been implicated in the horrors of Stalinism and wish to distinguish themselves from that monstrosity. Anarchists have never had to defend their politics in the same way because they have rarely troubled the ruling class and certainly don’t today.
As for the claim that there is a present to be dealt with, that’s a valid point but hardly a revelation to Marxists. Few anarchists today, except the rare coin like Abloke, bother themselves concretely with class-struggle politics in any meaningful way. Carping on about class politics does not a class fighter make.
I suspect the reason is that Abloke’s anarchism is of the syndicalist stripe, whereas most anarchism today is lost to the dead-end of trendy identity politics.
Socrates, June 22, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Those who want to examine some history might find it worthwhile considering the conduct and analysis of the Spanish Civil War. George Orwell (surely an authority on this topic) and more recently other authors have written in detail on this Iberian campaign, and documented the major causes of the Republicans’ loss to Franco.
Once again, the unholy trifecta of propagandism, sectarianism and cultic tendencies (evidenced by Stalin’s edicts to the Communist Party) ensured that the Republican defeat was inevitable.
These same negative traits are evident in the current attitudes and behaviour of small socialist groups. It seems apparent that no one from groups like Socialist Alternative is prepared to even acknowledge that there may be some truth in this view, let alone do anything about the problems.
How does the saying go? Ignore the mistakes of the past and you are bound to repeat them.
Chris M, June 22, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Having come back to this thread I have to say there is a lot of twaddle amongst some reasonable points. The positions would seem to be that 1) Small far left groups are cults, period. 2) That maybe not all small left groups are, but SA is. 3) That project of building such a group is politically mistaken (I take this to be Ablokimet’s position). 4) Some kind of debate about whether the emphasise should be (propagandism, agitation, intervention or activism) and how different left groups interact — which I take to be Bob’s point. I regard the last two of these as more fruitful and worth exploring.
I disagree with the first two. While acknowledging that it is possible for such groups to veer of into sectish and cultish behaviour (and that this is something to be mindful of) I can’t see much evidence for it in the particular case of SA. True, the IS did veer in that direction in the 1980s, and groups such as SA can have faults and failings. But what is so horrible about SA today?
There is no cult of personality around the leadership in Sydney that I can see. In the past 13 years no one has tried to limit my interaction with family and friends, my social life or personal life. I have at times been more or less critical of this or that position, or in agreemnet. Meetings are open, and most involve discussion. The organisation does take votes.
The meeting this week involved a somewhat timeless piece on fascism in Germany (and how it could have been defeated) — an introductory exposition of the Trotskyist position, followed by a discussion that raised amongst other things the difference between fascism and military dictatorships and fascism and right-wing poulism (such as we witnessed with Hansonism). The second item was a short talk and lively discussion on the Northern Territory Intervention — because it is an important issue of the day and because there was a demonstration that the branch wished to encourage as many people as possible to build and attend it. There were between 30 and 40 people at the meeting — which seesm to be pretty standard based on the meetings I have been able to get to in the last six months.
Someone above said something about SA doing what it has always done. While this is broadly true, there are differences about the group as it has developed in Sydney. My personal recollection is briefly this.
The group formed out of people who left the ISO at the time of the expulsion of some Melbourne comrades, and people who had left shortly beforehand. The group consisted of some 15 to 20 people, of whom three remain members today (none in positions of formal leadership I might add).
The group was concerned to move away from the hyperbole of the then ISO’s perspective and to have a more modest and relaxed organisational form. The group in Sydney was probably less politically cohered and clear than in Melbourne. Divisions emerged early around what can probably be seen as an emphasis on propagandism or campaigns, etc.
So it was a bit of a rocky start (with an expulsion and some haemorrhaging), but there was a sense of hope and creativity about it too. Although the group was able to intervene around things such as Hansonism and the waterfront dispute, it had a problem. It wasn’t all that young, so despite a kind of student orientation within SA overall, the Sydney branch had few actual students.
For a few years we gained ones and twos and lost ones and twos. A branch meeting might be 10 or 15 people, or it got to a point where it might not happen as there were only five or six people able to get there. We still had some large public meetings and put on the odd good event, but it was pretty fragile.
Some comrades moved to Wollongong and briefly there was a branch there. Come the begining of this decade the organisation benefitted from a few people moving up from Melbourne and our interventions around the wars in Afghanisatn and Iraq.
The group responded well to the increased ability to be involved in activity and made its propaganda more concrete. In early- to mid-2003 it was having branch meetings of about 30 people and occasionally up to about 50. The membership also probably reached about that level by the middle of the year.
An emphasis had been placed on work at Sydney University, antiwar work and refugee work. The group started to function in a more organised way nationally. Following another haemorrhaging in 2004 the group has placed more emphasis on its own routine, propagandism, study groups, day schools and so on. So, yes, it is different from 2001-2004, but so is the context in which it is operating. The Sydney group has built up a serious core that carries the work of the organisation — predominantly people who joined from 2003 onwards. I think the group takes itself far more seriously, which can be a good and bad thing.
Maria, June 22, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Those people who are obsessed with a certain period of history or a certain ideology may consider it is solely their own business. However, we certainly must closely examine a group such as Socialist Alternative that manipulates young naive minds to recruit and indoctrinate them to the group’s ideology (obsession). This is done by insulating them from others, monopolising their time, and force-feeding them the group’s selected texts and eventually letting them believe that it is their mission and important role in the society to recruit others before they have any chance to look around and make up their own minds.
It is really a shame to see young, able, and mostly good-hearted students obsessed with the activities of such a group, which is mainly focused on recruitment without knowing exactly what they are advocating. I have heard comments such as “they (the students) leave such a group eventually, but the damage has already been done by then”.
The following is a quote from an ex-Hillsong member. “One of the most efficient ways to get people to work for free is to tell them it’s for an external cause. As long as they believe in it strongly enough, no sacrifice is too great. And blind eyes will be turned.”
@ndy, June 22, 2008 (From Leftwrites) As it happens, Socialist Alternative is addressing the subject of the Spanish Civil War at its upcoming series of events titled “Ideas to challenge crapitalism”. In Melbourne on August 16, anarchism is being to put to the test and — I’m guessing here — given a failing grade on the basis of its poor performance at this time. A sympathetic portrayal of the movement is available online in the Spanish TV documentary film Vivir la Utopia.
Chris M, June 22, 2008 (From Leftwrites) All very wonderful, Maria, but not exactly applicable. Still, it makes a good just-so tale unencumbered by what is actually involved in trying to build a group such as SA. You can’t do it in the way that you describe — and in fact SA doesn’t.
The Spanish Revolution and Civil War has been a topic on the left for as long as I can remember, and in fact SA in Sydney had a discussion of it last year. It’s not out of an obsession with “a certain period of history”, nor is it just to beat up on anarchism and find it wanting. More often in my experience the emphasis has been on the damaging role of Stalinism in the international movement of the time. A little while ago (in some moments of boredom) I started putting some stuff up on the web (pamphlets, journal articles and what not). The stuff on the Spanish Civil War is here (a pamphlet followed by links to other articles, books etc), if anyone is interested. It’s my intention to add an anarchist pamphlet that I have at some point too. (BTW Socrates, Orwell’s book on Spain is a personal favourite of mine.)
Harry, June 23, 2008 (From Leftwrites) I just can’t say how shocking it is that revolutionary Marxist grouplets, unlike any other kind of political group, actually endeavour to recruit. It’s an entirely unambiguous sign of a cult mentality to attempt to expand the group’s size or influence. But what really clinches it is the way they encourage the naive and impressionable to read material that they agree with and believe will enhance understanding of things that matter to them.
Omar H, June 23, 2008 (From Leftwrites) To be fair, the criticism is not really about the provision of reading materials, but the alleged rigorous control over newer members’ access to ideas from non-SA/IST sources.
A reasonable concern (assuming political neutrality), but not a valid one in this case. We are encouraged to read what the organisation thinks are important books in order to get an understanding of some basics, but there is no mention of not reading anything else. In my experience SA comrades are happy to read and discuss what some of you imagine might be termed heretical materials.
Oh. How could I forget? The idea that there is an immunisation period in which newer members (like me) are hardened into an anti-everybody-else perspective is a paranoid joke. Political and strategic differences are addressed when the questions come up — which in my case was very early on — and is done in an entirely political manner. It might just be that some of these political differences are quite important.
Unfortunately, a similar focus on political debates does not apply to many of those who’ve been such passionate participants in this opportunistic and mostly apolitical thread.
Really, how lame.
Jill, June 23, 2008 (From Leftwrites) I’ve got a question — and it’s mainly directed to people who share my view that trying to build a left-wing organisation is a good thing. Why is it that lefties so often assert (and I’ve heard it a lot recently) that these questions of political organisation and group dynamics are “apolitical”?
I remember thinking this myself for a long time but I don’t now — and for the life of me, I can’t remember the logic behind this view.
Tony, June 23, 2008 (From Leftwrites) This thread is unbelievably apolitical. I have plenty of political disagreements with Socialist Alternative, and Mick Armstrong’s recent book, but don’t feel like making them here because all I see on this thread is reactionary apolitical left-bashing.
A few points:
1. Whatever criticisms one may have of Socialist Alternative, they’ve never killed anyone, sent troops to invade foreign countries, expanded the “welfare quarantine” apartheid system against indigenous people, privatised any state assets or imprisoned anyone under anti-terror laws. The same cannot be said of the party of which the initiator of this thread is a proud member: the ALP.
2. With Maria’s “the Commies are brainwashing our kids” post, the thread reaches a point of McCarthyite hysteria. Pathetic. (When one considers how much time the “na´ve young minds” Maria refers to are exposed to manipulation by mainstream, capitalist propaganda through the education system, the media and all the other institutions of capitalist society, and how little time the evil cult leaders of Socialist Alternative get to manipulate them in comparison, one can only conclude that the Socialist Alternative leaders have powers of telepathic suggestion that would leave a Jedi in awe.)
3. The problem with apolitical psychologising is that you come out with statements such as this: “Once again, the unholy trifecta of propagandism, sectarianism and cultic tendencies (evidenced by Stalin’s edicts to the Communist Party) ensured that the Republican defeat was inevitable.” (“Socrates” talking about the Spanish Civil War on this thread).
The Spanish Communist Party was a tool of Stalin’s foreign policy, which wanted to avert the fascist threat but was opposed to the overthrow of capitalism in Western Europe. Thus it was violently sectarian towards the revolutionary left but very unsectarian towards the capitalist Republican parties, which were delighted that the Communists suppressed the Marxist POUM and Anarchist FAI-CNT.
I’m not trying to give a thorough explanation of the defeat of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, just pointing out that it was to do with politics. The problem with the Communist Party was not “sectarianism” in the abstract but the fact that it wished capitalist rule to remain (just like the ALP does). With hindsight one can say that the POUM and FAI-CNT should have been a little less friendly towards the capitalist Republican parties and their Stalinist attack dog.
Dennis Tourish, June 23, 2008 (From Leftwrites) It has been some time since I posted in this thread, since it appears to have mostly run its course. Several positions have been clearly staked out, and readers can judge for themselves which ones they find most convincing. However, Tony’s comments cry out for some little rejoinder.
I am by now used to the claim that those of who us who raise the tiny matter of the internal dynamics of far left organisations as an issue for discussion are being “apolitical” and should focus on the politics instead. There are many forums for many of the political issues that are being suggested for discussion — for example, whether activists would do more good by being inside the ALP, or grouped in their own separate organisations. What we get much more rarely is any focus on the way in which the far left organises itself, how respectful it is towards dissent, whether its leaders have inordinate power, how its overly zealous emphasis on recruitment and “cadre building” can result in indoctrination and political ossification etc.
These are legitimate and important topics in their own right. One of the far left’s claim to relevance is that party building is critical for the future of humanity — without a revolutionary party, socialism is lost cause. If a discussion of their internal regime, however, is ruled “apolitical” and off limits (presumably, since it is of such little importance), it would rather suggest that there is zero point in the party building projects they are so energetically committed to.
Additionally, although it is absolutely fair to suggest that there are important factors in the political environment that help to explain their isolation, it does not follow that their organisational regimes are not also implicated in this monumental failure. Yet there is a loud hostility to any attempt to look at how these groups organise themselves. I find that revealing.
For example, Tony makes some useful points about Stalinism in Spain. But, again, this is not the full story, however true his rendition is. It is impossible to read about the Stalinist parties in the 1930s and beyond (there is a huge literature on this) without being struck by the straightforwardly cultic environment they created internally.
I have just finished The Death of Uncle Joe by Alison MacLeod, a book that should be much more widely known. MacLeod was a key journalist on the Daily Worker in the 1950s, and published this memoir in the 1990s, which exposes the atmosphere in the British Communist Party when the Russian tanks rolled into Hungary.
It is based on her notes from the time and some interviews with surviving CP stalwarts. A sad picture emerges: blind faith; over-conviction in the rightness of the cause in question; no real internal discussion; dissenters demonised, libelled and banished; sacred truths held to be self-evident when in point of fact they weren’t; a culture of everything sacrificed to the party; a view that everything depended on its existence; a horrible sectarianism to all and sundry on its perimeter.
The sad truth is that much of this Stalinist culture has been imbibed by its most ferocious critics on the Trotskyist left. The methods of organising and the attitudes that go with it are not that different. Consider what is obvious to everyone not directly involved: the ghastly, repellent sectarianism of the Trotskyist left, its endless fragmentation into ever smaller units of devotees agreeing with each other about more and more issues, its inability to gain a toehold in wider mass movements (evidenced by Tony’s refusal to differentiate between the policies of the ALP’s leaders and those of its critics within) — these are all sectarian traits that have a great deal in common with Stalinism.
My own view is that they predispose Trotskyist organisations, to one degree or another (they are not all identical in how far the process has advanced) towards what can only be described as cultism. I cannot see how this advances the cause the groups are advocating, but I can see how it squanders the talents of the people involved, burns them out, and ultimately puts most of them off politics for life. This might be the main achievement of Trotskyist groups, such as it is, but it is far different from the lofty goals they have set themselves.
By branding any attempt to discuss such issues as apolitical, however infrequently such discussions take place, many contributors to this thread are showing an alarming inability to learn from experience. A case in point is the frankly risible suggestion made by some that 80-plus years of party building is too short a time to judge whether the project can succeed. Eighty-plus years of failure should give even the most committed believer pause for thought. My own modest suggestion is that we can do better. But to do so means that no matter is off-limits for discussion — including how leftists organise to advance their goals.
Jill, June 23, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Tony: “Whatever criticisms one may have of Socialist Alternative, they’ve never killed anyone, sent troops to invade foreign countries, expanded the ‘welfare quarantine’ apartheid system against indigenous people, privatised any state assets or imprisoned anyone under anti-terror laws.”
Yes but if you used those criteria you could never criticise any left-wing group that wasn’t in government.
I’m not interested in attacking SA or responding to the (small number) of people who believe that left equals cultish, but I do take issue with the idea that such discussions about organisational politics or “party building” are inherently apolitical.
I also strongly disagree with the idea that every problem in an organisation can be traced to a problem of formal politics. Perhaps that’s more likely to be the case in mass parties like the Communist Party — but it’s a ridiculous idea for tiny groups like we have on the left. In fact, a quite problematic idea because it gives everyone delusions of grandeur.
Dennis Tourish, June 23, 2008 (From Leftwrites) One little point if I may. I certainly do not believe that left equals cultish. I do believe, however, that if you look at the Trotskyist far left (a little different to a notion of the left), most such organisations have at least some cultish tendencies. Some, of course, are full-blown horror stories — for examnple, Gerry Healy’s now thankfully defunct Workers Revolutionary Party. Others are just apprentices. I have no idea how cultish (or otherwise) Socialist Alternative is, for example. I hope this clarifies my own views.
Maria, June 24, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Oh dear! The word cult must have hit a chord with some people. First of all, as indicated in some of the previous posts, the word can apply to any group, whether it is religious, political, left, right, capitalist, socialist and so on. So, just because someone happened to have noticed the cultic tendency in a socialist group and expressed her opinion, it does not necessarily make her a right-wing left basher or capitalist.
I could use a right wing group as an example. But still the reality regarding SA remains the same. Some contributors emphasised the group’s “noble cause”. But in terms of cult, cause is not an issue. Many religious cults advocate world peace or universal happiness.
The issues here are manipulation and control. Some people do not like my contribution because this is apolitical. What is politics? Politics is ultimately for people. Cultism causes serious harm to people and if some political group seems to exercise cultism, it must be seriously examined.
I simply presented my opinion based on observation of the current SA members and ex-SA members over some time. I have attended a number of SA meetings and read a number of publications issued by SA including the SA handbook. Yet, most revelations came from actually talking to current members (that is why they are not allowed to talk to outsiders).
What is worrying in this group is the “control”, not only the control by the leadership, but also the mutual control among SA members — and they exercise this control willingly and voluntarily in the name of commitment. Of course, the members themselves are not aware of this control. That is the nature of cultism.
Commitment itself is not a problem, but when a balance between commitment and self is lost, there is a problem. My analysis is that the culture of the group or the way they try to build the group led to such a tendency (one of the reasons may be that members are considered as mere footsolders for recruitment, not individual human beings, as the leadership is too keen on recruitment and tries too hard to keep them within the group).
I don’t think that SA leaders intentionally tried to build a cultish group, but its culture created such a phenomenon. Some of the contributors to this thread who are outside of this group sensed this tendency. Although Bob Gould later withdrew his word, cult, I think his first expression is his honest impression.
Often the outsiders can see or sense things more clearly than the leaders/members themselves of such a group, particularly uncomfortable perceptions such as cult-like behaviour. So, I am not surprised at all my perception is totally denied by some of the contributors. I have not yet seen that the leaders/members of Scientology agree with the allegation of their cultic behaviors.
As a matter of fact, one of the ex-SA members used the word cultic to describe the SA’s behavior only when he looked back own his membership. In another case, an ex-union member suddenly realised, long after he left the union, that the union he belonged to exercised mind control over its own members. This realisation happened while he was later attending a communications class.
I realise that, from my experience, it is almost impossible to make someone who is under mind control become aware of their mindset until they actually leave the group. Usually, they even do not understand what happened to them until they closely examine such manipulation. Although the degree of mind control varies depending on the group or the branch of the group that exercises it, and the degree exercised by SA may not be so serious as other groups such as some religious and new age groups, I certainly see the evidence.
Patrick, June 24, 2008 (From Leftwrites) “Eighty-plus years of failure should give even the most committed believer pause for thought.” (Dennis Tourish)
SA in 1996 — 10-15 members
SA in 2008 — Over 350 people attend Marxism 2008, taking up two floors of the Melbourne Uni student union building with about 100 sessions and international speakers from Iraq Veterans Against the War, Chinese trade unions and two from South Africa.
ISO February 2008 — Formally ceases to exist, merging with Solidarity after a decade of declining membership.
Dave Latham, June 24, 2008 (From Leftwrites) “The frankly risible suggestion made by some that 80-plus years of party building is too short a time to judge whether the project can succeed is a case in point. Eighty-plus years of failure should give even the most committed believer pause for thought. My own modest suggestion is that we can do better.”
Dennis’s contributions seem to swing with the breeze a bit. Earlier he suggested that post-Trotsky the Trotskyist left had not come up with any very new analysis or theories. But presumably it wouldn’t have mattered because Trotskyism is an undifferentiated slab of time and practice — groups are only further or less advanced on the scale of cultishness.
What Dennis “discovers” about Trotskyism is really dictated by his own internal regime of embitterment, which he appears have turned into a profession. He very slickly glosses over the external situations facing Trotskyist with glib and hollow statements. Dennis’s obsession seems to be like a pince nez he can’t take off his face. Maybe he was damaged by association with Healyism — in which case my condolences go out to him — but I find it hard to take seriously someone who makes prognostications from afar about groups which, by his own admission, he has no idea about!
If this isn’t putting form before content, making reality fit the theory, I don’t know what is. Thank god you didn’t practice medicine. I don’t think I’d enjoy being diagnosed from a distance.
Dennis Tourish, June 24, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Dave, many thanks for the long-distance diagnosis of my psychological state. It is good to know that I have an internal regime of embitterment and that I have an obsession. Obviously, from your perspective, this invalidates my arguments?
For the record, I have never had any personal experience of Healyism, as Dave infers, although I observed it at close hand (having known members, and talked to many others over the years). However, as is well documented, I did have close personal experience of the CWI. My “obsession” is likewise a dubious diagnosis. As an academic I write a great deal on a variety of issues, and maybe about 0.3 per cent of my output is on these issues. If it is an obsession, it is a remarkably restrained one.
There is a tendency on the far left to psychologise the arguments of opponents as a means of avoiding having to deal with them — I, for example, am“embittered” and “obsessed”. Others are class traitors (ie greedy for money and prestige). The list could go on. The common thread is the assumption that people disagree with the far left for dubious, pecuniary reasons — their motivations are generally held to be impure. These speculations are advanced to avoid having to deal with people’s ideas. In essence, Dave is committing what logicians call the “genetic fallacy” — that is, if he can discredit the source of an idea, he can then (he thinks) dismiss the idea. In fact, of course, someone’s ideas stand or fall on their own merits, irrespective of their origin. Even I was Genghis Khan, although that might be interesting, it would by itself fail to invalidate (or validate) my ideas.
Lastly, I have conspicuously avoided diagnosing groups in faraway places about which I know little, an imaginary offence that has nevertheless caused Dave some pain. (Whereas he feels free to diagnose my mental state, without ever having met me.) I have emphasised throughout, for example, that I don’t know enough about Socialist Alternative to have a definitive view on its cultish status: maybe all is sunny in its garden. If so, I am very happy for Dave and his colleagues and send them my congratulations and best wishes.
I am simply observing that those far left groups that I do know, closer to home, tend to share some cultish traits, to one degree or another. I rather suspect that this is endemic to such organisations. My own tentative hypothesis, again, is that if any can be found that are free of cultish traits they will probably be poor practitioners of the Trotskyist party building project and moving away from it. I invite debate and further data on the point. In any event, we will see.
Apologies if I have been insufficiently clear on the point.
Rose, June 24, 2008 @ 8:12 pm (From Leftwrites) Dennis, thanks very much for the arguments, politeness, irrefutable logic and persistence. This precious record of discussion will stand.
It’s ironic, isn’t it, that ideologists who are most dismissive of psychology and psychoanalytic theory — such a rich wisdom tradition — should weakly resort, as you say, to simplistic “apolitical” psychological explanations of oppositionists, or more typically, subjectively designated political apostates.
Robert Bollard, June 24, 2008 (From Leftwrites) I want to deal with Jill’s point about whether dealing with group dynamics is apolitical. My answer would be that it should be possible, but in practice it tends inevitably to lead in that direction. The point is that the idea that there is something inherent in the dynamics of a small group, abstracted from the political environment the group operates in, is inherently apolitical. Who knows, for instance, what depths of Bohemian eccentricity the Iskra editorial board would have plumbed in their little building in London if the Russian working class hadn’t suddenly started reading their little newspaper?
What is left, if you take out that context, is an endless discussion of the symptoms of a more profound disease — a bit like trying to establish why the rash is nastier on the left thigh than the right, rather than why there’s a rash in the first place. In the years since I dropped out of revolutionary politics I’ve experienced far more “uncomradely”, even openly psychotic, behaviour, weird “cultic” practices, victimisation of individuals, bullying, artificial mechanisms to induce loyalty, far nastier mechanisms to induce fear amongst potential deviants from “the line” etc. The “cults” that have done this moreover have a name for their vile practices — “human resource management”.
Now, of course, we want the left to be different to this. We want it to be a model of the society we want to build, although we have to understand that to a large extent that is impossible; we don’t live in utopia; we live in this crappy world with all its stresses and distortions. But any discussion of the way the left operates that doesn’t start from the general political situation will be “apolitical” and useless.
To the extent that there is any merit in Bob’s snarky little post at the beginning of this thread it lies in the fact that he at least identifies the faults he perceives in Socialist Alternative as coming from an overly propagandist orientation. He doesn’t see them as inherent in the project of building a political organisation or as an original sin inherited with Trotskyism by some as-yet-to-be-explained mechanism.
It would be good in theory to have a decent discussion, but, to be honest, the idea that a proper discussion could be had of the question, either in a public meeting or online is a joke. You just have to check the standard of most of the contributions to this thread to see what would happen.
Joseph Cross, June 25, 2008 (From Leftwrites) I think Robert makes some of the best comments on this thread.
I’d add that most of the comments seem to assume that the small groups on the left today will stay that way for the forseeable future. I certainly wouldn’t want to be a member of any group that saw the existence of a small group as an end in itself, and wanted to remain pure ideologically by refusing to attempt to recruit new members. While maybe it’s realistic that small groups will remain that way for some time in Oz, and therefore we need to minimise the tendency towards cultism, unless those groups at least have a perspective of wanting to eventually become a mass party I can see no good reason for their existence. This is one criticism i don’t think anyone can level at SA.
BTW, having just come back from the ISO conference in Chicago, I must say the energy and enthusiasm of the organisation is absolutely inspiring. Damn all you negative types. “They say death row, We say hell no!”
Dave Latham, June 25, 2008 (From Leftwrites) “Lastly, I have conspicuously avoided diagnosing groups in faraway places about which I know little, an imaginary offence which has nevertheless caused Dave some pain. (Whereas he feels free to diagnose my mental state, without ever having met me).”
Yes it’s rather annoying to be summarily diagnosed isn’t it Dennis, but just to reiterate I’m not part of any Trotskyist group and haven’t been for eight years, so you flatter yourself if you imagine you have caused me pain. It hurts me more to see Collingwood lose to Carlton than anything that has been suggested on this thread.
You occasionally make concessions: “I have no idea how cultish (or otherwise) Socialist Alternative is”, but the whole tenor of your argument is to assert that Trotskyist groups are more or less advanced on the conveyor belt to cultism. If they aren’t, can you name some of the Trotskyist groups that aren’t in some way cultish and what the secret of their success might be?
You don’t seem to distinguish between Trotskyist groups or the historical situations facing them, stating: “The frankly risible suggestion made by some that 80-plus years of party building is too short a time to judge whether the project can succeed is a case in point. Eighty-plus years of failure should give even the most committed believer pause for thought.”
No attempt to make any distinctions, just a blanket diagnosis that Trotskyist groups have had plenty of opportunities to relate to the external political environment and to evolve, they haven’t done so, therefore something is critically wrong with their project. How we disentangle the objective and internal dynamics on Trotskyist groups is not at all clear, but it would be nice if you made an attempt to do so — to leaven your claustrophobic theory with some broader diagnosis.
I have argued on this thread that there are certainly issues in Trotskyist groups that can be addressed, but you seem to want to focus on the internal environment rather than the external as a means of explaining the small state of the Trotskyist left. That may be an occupational hazard of yours given you have developed a theory of internal dynamics to explain the situation.
You’re an academic Dennis, how about a “thick description” of the situation that Trotskyist groups find themselves in. Is the fact that politics in most Western democracies (without proportional voting) seems to be stitched up by two parties a great recommendation of those parties? If the Labor Party adopted the same politics as the Greens would their vote shrink to the size of the Greens or would it remain the same? If the Greens adopted Labor’s policies, would they fare as well as Labor at the next election?
I think we know the answer to that. Tradition means a lot, as does media pump-priming when it comes to politics. So let’s not confuse small groups or small support with bad politics or bad internal regimes.
We are not in a “pre-paradigmatic” period of politics where everything is on a level playing field, resources and exposure are even, allegiances haven’t been forged, historical circumstances haven’t had their effect (eg Stalinism), etc. The far right seems to be forging ahead in Europe, but is that a reflection of their functional internal regimes or that they are cutting with the political grain? The fact is that Social Democratic parties have given legitimacy to far right ideas and triangulated their supporters. Hardly a great environment for the left.
Dennis Tourish, June 25, 2008 (From Leftwrites) I thought the whole point of this thread was to look a little more closely at the internal dynamics of the far left. Dave Latham raises some legitimate issues for discussion — in particular, how the external environment (ie what is likely to happen politically) impacts on the left’s prospects for growth. However, this topic is done to death in many other contexts, and I fear is rather beyond this.
My own position is that I fully acknowledge, and have done so on many occasions, that the general political environment of course impacts on whether left groups grow. I just add the rider: but your internal atmosphere also makes a considerable contribution. It is this that Dave seems to find hard to swallow, and not him alone.
In addition, I take the view that if the “right” external environment hasn’t occurred over a period of at least 80 years, it is unlikely to do so now. There isn’t much point in launching a project where the right conditions will only prevail about once every 100 years for about six months in one country in the world.
Hardly propitious omens for success. I don’t see anything in Dave’s diagnosis of the external environment to suggest that ideal conditions for the party building project (let’s say for starters, from his notes: full-scale disillusionment with existing organisations, such as the ALP; mass amnesia, so that existing traditions disappear from consciousness; a new voting system that favours Socialist Alternative, or other Trotskyists) are likely to appear anytime soon.
The problem, to me, seems to be that Trotskyist party building projects are always launched with a great fanfare and much enthusiasm. They promptly collapse or stagnate. But the leaders say, in effect: “It wasn’t me, guv.” There is always someone or something else to blame, particularly those damned objective conditions. This is a handy way of saying that the underlying perspective is falsified. It would be simpler to just admit: “we were wrong — again”. I find many groups that issue apolocylptic predictions work themselves into a frenzy of activity, and then keep right on going when what has been predicted and promised doesn’t happen (what has been called catastrophism). They are usually cults.
I know little about Socialist Alternative — I haven’t talked to its members or read its publications other than in passing, or studied its genealogy. But if it is fully immersed in the Trotskyist tradition I would be surprised if there weren’t elements of at least sectism with the potential for cultism in its make-up. I’m basing this on my experience of many Trotskyist groups in other countries. Others with more experience or data are better equipped to decide in this particular case. Whether this tentative position causes Dave offence or not I don’t know either, but it is my view. And unless there is something substantially new to arise here, I will leave it at that.
Dave Latham, June 26, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Yes catastrophism has been a feature of some Trotskyist groups, and conservatives too. Churchill was one of the great catastrohpists of the 20th century — Dardanelles anyone?
I take your point there Dennis and I agree with one of your earlier points that there needs to be a lot more theoretical analysis of the world today — the changed nature of Social Democracy and global economy, for example.
But where I can’t agree is with the offhand treatment of Trotskyism as an 80-year, amorphous failure.
Leaving aside the decades of economic growth, which quite evidently doesn’t assist in the building of a revolutionary party, if anyone studies the influence of Trotskyist groups in specific campaigns, regions and periods one will get a different picture from the anodyne depiction Dennis presents.
There’s nothing easier than to parachute into history, gather some facts congenial to your general thesis and then take off without surveying the general landscape to see how others in that period are reacting, operating and faring.
If anyone cares to look at how Trotskysists operated in the 1930s in Bruchal, Minneapolis or Madrid — the results are impressive and Trotskyist influence based on its ideas reaches well beyond its small base of cadre. Many other small campaigns over the years have had Trotskyists playing important and often central roles — against racism, the poll tax, British miners’ strike, etc.
There are problems with discipline and debate quite evidently in Trotskyist groups. Social Democratic parties seem to avoid this problem by simply ignoring the rank and file and pressing along the road to neoliberalism bit by bit. This leads to an exodus of committed socialists and an influx of careerists, which makes the situation worse. Superstars or annointed ones from head office are dropped into seats to be the representatives.
Social Democracy’s support base has haemorrhaged over time too, not so much by splits or expulsions but by resignation — both literal and metaphorical. You can join the broad church so long as you don’t expect to influence it. The sort of demoagogy that operates in Social Democracy is that of indifference and arrogance — the same goes with Tories. If it looked as though Social Democracy might start to be controlled by the members I think you might start to see some rather more strident and authoritarian behaviour.
Will, June 27, 2008 (From Leftwrites) I’m a bit late to join this nice discussion, but I may as well stick my oar in.
D. Tourish can probably give a more precise definition, but what I understand as cultic activity (from a historical perspective) is the exploitation of a mass of people by an elite. There might be some cultic tendencies associated with fringe leftist groups, but I don’t know if they are self-consciously so. From the descriptions above (and I have absolutely no experience with organised socialist parties), these fringe groups sound more like historical associations, discussing as they are political events and theories that date from a century or more ago.
It amazes me how those wishing to organise on the left have failed to adapt to the current political climate. By which I mean, they have not rejected the monolothic party mould, and still pursue manifestos and we-the-undersigned posturing. This is a surefire way to make yourself marginal and irrelevent. What needs to be addressed are issues.
This is done by unions and by pressure groups. Take environmental groups — the Wilderness Society and Friends of the Earth must have a massively larger membership than any of the groups being critiqued here. They are still political groups, and I would say are rather more effective. They don’t stop you from pursuing ideological interests in Marxism, Trotskyism, anarchism or whatever. But they can affect real political change in a way that anachronistic political theorising just does not.
Chav, June 27, 2008 (From Leftwrites) “What needs to be addressed are issues.”
But Will all these issues are interconnected. Marxism is a tool that helps us to understand how and why and what to do about them.
The Wilderness Society may have a larger membership than far left groups, but they have different aims and methods. It’s not that all these organisations are striving in the different ways for the same goal, they actually have different goals.
Will, June 27, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Of course I appreciate different goals, and that, for example, Marxist thought can contribute to the aims and strategies of the more practically minded groups. But what I meant was that the creed-based nature of some leftist groups means that they can alienate those who might sympathise with their aims. From working on civil rights issues I have realised that it is becoming more important to strike unusual alliances that do not fit into preconceived political outlooks.
@ndy, June 27, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Will, I think the simplest way of understanding what Dennis Tourish means by the term cult is to read his paper on the subject. It provides a standard definition of the term, and then applies it to a Trotskyist group in the UK. And if Dave Latham or some other helpful person could help me navigate my way out of the dead-end of trendy identity politics, I’d sure appreciate it. I appear to be quite lost when it comes to the subject of anarchism and Socialist Alternative, but unfortunately Socialist Alternative appears quite unable to help.
Ablokeimet, June 27, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Chav, Tom and the other Socialist Alternativeers owe the likes of Campesino and Maria a beer. This is because the overblown “cult” accusations are actually starting to make me feel a bit sympathetic to their perspective — something I didn’t think was possible. The left needs organisation and it needs political clarity. While it doesn’t need the Leninist vanguard party, it also doesn’t need the anti-communist red-baiting that contaminates some of the contributions above.
Maria, June 28, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Ablokeimet may think my comments in the previous posts are overblown “cult” accusations. These opinions are based on my contacts with current and former members of Socialist Alternative in conjunction with my extensive studies of cultism.
As Dennis Tourish summarised in his excellent paper, which is referred to in previous posts, cults come in many shapes and sizes.
This is an extract from his paper: “Groups are not necessarily either cults or not cults. They can be both, at different times and under different circumstances. The key is to identify what techniques of social influence are being used, and the extent to which the people involved recognise the dangers inherent to a great many forms of organisation.”
My intention in contributing to this thread is not political. My concern is control and manipulation and the effects on the members after they have left such groups. After-effects can be depression, alienation, and in severe cases suicide, even if these effects are not a direct cause. My aim is to raise awareness to anyone of the dangers of involvement in such groups and to their leaders who exercise undue control over the members, even unintentionally.
Darren, June 28, 2008 (From Leftwrites) “My intention in contributing to this thread is not political”, says Maria. Well this is hardly the thread, or indeed, website to be contributing to, is it?
Other contributers seem to counterpose membership of reformist parties such as the Labor Party or the Greens as more worthwhile. So I think that a fundamental point has to be made here: large reformist parties are positivliy dangerous in a revolutionary situation. Tony H has given us the example of the Communists in Spain, the Socialist Party in Chile is another I can think of. That is the whole point of the independent socialist project.
I would have thought that Dennis T would at least acknowledge this, having spent time in the CWI. And as a point of fact, revolutions don’t just happen once a every 100 years for six months in one country. In the 20th century they went off at least once a decade all over the place.
Having said that, I am a member of the ALP, having left SA because I thought that they were becoming too sectish. On the weekend I ran in to another ex-SA member who said that he would become active again when the group became less “silly”. That would seem to acknowledge there is a problem, while holding out some hope of rectification. I hope so too. But in dealing with this issue there must be two fundamental starting points. The first, which I mention above, is the impotantance and validity of the revolutionary socialist project. The second is an open and honest look at cultism, sectarianism or “silliness” in the far left. Without both of these we are not going to tackle the issue.
I reckon Bob’s idea of a discussion by all the far left groups on just this issue is a good one. It might just provide the circuit breaker. Of course, that would mean ackowledging there is a problem.
@ndy, June 28, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Regarding broad-based forums for political discussion, I believe that this was part of the intention in establishing the various Social Fora.
Dennis Tourish, June 28, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Darren — some interesting points above. I am glad that you recognise there is a need to discuss what you call the “silliness” of the far left, and what I would describe as its “cultishness”. But I think you inadvertently argue against one of your main propositions — that there is a justification for the vanguard party building project, albeit in a modified form — with the following: “revolutions don’t just happen once a every 100 years for six months in one country. In the 20th century they went off at least once a decade all over the place”. I think the point might be that the influence of the Trotskyist party building groups on these revolutions has been close to zero. I don’t see any reason to imagine that, if revolutionary situations occur in the future, the particular sectish groups we have now become attuned to will have any greater influence within them than they have had in the 20th century.
The point has been made a few times above that this failure is down to external conditions. But these external conditions are best described as “the real world”. The world is as it is, not as we would like it to be, or our theory tells us it ought to be, or even less as our theory tells us it will be. The world is out there — with mass reformist parties, a Stalinist past (which will never be forgotten, and that has, fairly or unfairly, discredited the notion of Leninist vanguard socialism), a tradition of voting for organisations like the ALP (if you vote at all), and much else. You can’t wish these factors out of existence. But you can’t also say: our project has failed because of these factors, long live our project. It is a circular argument. I see no evidence, albeit plentiful assertion, that these conditions will change.
A word also on the view that, well, maybe we haven’t captured state power but we have grown, look, we had 300-plus people at an event last year. This is not convincing. Success here is relative to the goals set in 1938 at the founding of the Fourth International. That was worldwide revolution and a socialist federation of the planet. Three hundred people in a room in Sydney is as close to this as me jumping from the sofa in my living room, and claiming that I have progressed towards my goal of a moon launch. Time to rethink, retool and refocus.
Chris M, June 28, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Dennis, I would agree with most of your last post, with some qualifications. I think you are right to indicate that Trotskyism has generally had a hard time adjusting to reality. This is because it was largely conceived on the run as a defensive and short-term project, not a long-term one.
Trotsky initially saw working around the Communist Parties and centrist parties as a way of rapidly rebuilding a revolutionary party in the Bolshevik tradition. This was not how the Bolsheviks themselves had built, and it was a much more challenging proposition. It was also a more difficult brief than the setting up of the Communist parties after the founding of the Third International.
I believe it was a short-cut premised on the crisis of capitalism — the depression and the coming war. Not surprisingly, Trotsky thought World War II would end in revolutions — as had WWI. This was why the Fourth International was founded — and in retrospect it was clearly a mistake. There was always something grandiose about the Fourth International given the tiny forces Trotskyism had.
Trotsky’s death, the expansion of Stalinism into Eastern Europe and the the long post-war boom all proved very disorienating for orthodox Trotskyism. Generally there was some accommodation to Stalinism, a reliance on classic texts, and a failure to creatively and theorectically engage with a new and very tough reality.
I think the IS tendency in Britain at least had a pretty good go at these tasks and tried to use them as a way of reconnecting with the theoretical insights of classical Marxism — that of the revolutionary generation that had all but been wiped out by Stalinism and fascism. While Trotskyism may have benefited from the radicalisations of the 1960s and 1970s it was still operating in much the same conext that the Cold War provided — and was able to conterpose itself to Stalinist streams in the socialist movement. This has changed again with the end of the Cold War. At the very least Trotskist groups have managed to survive, which is more than can be said for most socialist organistation. But as the above ramble kind of indicates it was often defensive and backwards looking.
I would consisder that there are broadly three big changes since Trotsky’s death that have changed the reality of the working class, and working class politics. One was the onset of the Cold War, the long boom and the end of colonial empires. Two the turn to neoliberalism, and three the end of the Cold War. All of these have led to a drift of Social Democracy further to the right, a general undermining of class consciouness and organisation, and a sense that there is no alternative to capitalism.
The working class has always been dynamic — it wasn’t the same in Lenin’s day as it was in Marx’s and we are now 100 years on again. It is also possible that there is no working class vangaurd and therefore no prospect of a vangaurd party along the lines that Lenin was proposing at the beginning of the 20th century. However, all of these things can be theorised in Marxist terms, and Trotsky’s work has played an important part in helping Marxists understand the 20th century.
While you can argue that Trotskyism failed to make much of the revolutions that did occur over the 20th century, I don’t think this can be explained solely in terms of formal political understanding or cultish internal regimes. If Trotkyists of various stripes have failed, has anyone else really succeeded in moving these events in a socialist direction? I get a bit tired of the refrain that these events could have been moved in such a direction if there was a revolutionary socialist party — the fact is there hasn’t been one because there haven’t been conditions conducive to building one. Likewise, no one has shown an alternative way of steering a revolution to success in the absence of a revolutionary party.
The starting point therefore becomes that building a party is not the task of the day (but it might be a task in the future, maybe it is totally discredited). I hate Toy Leninism as much as the next person. Acknowledging this does not remove the need for a political analysis of the world, some understanding of where you fit in with the traditions of the past, and the need to organise with like-minded people.
Getting a socialist group up to 350 or so people in Australia is, I agree, pretty irrelevant in terms of world revolution. But I still think it’s better than not having those 350 people enaged with the socialist project. Sure, if there was a revoultion tomorrow a group of 350 people would be unable to influence the course of events, but that is not the circumstance we are dealing with.
Likewise a group such as SA is not an embryo of a revolutionary party (waiting to hand out the program), it is simply a starting point. Groups will grow, come and go, merge, undergo internal changes, learn from struggles and then be transformed all over again if they manage to become part of a mass organisation.
Dave Latham, June 30, 2008 (From Leftwrites) “If Trotkyists of various stripes have failed, has anyone else really succeeded in moving these events in a socialist direction? I get a bit tired of the refrain that these events could have been moved in such a direction if there was a revolutionary socialist party — the fact is there hasn’t been one because there haven’t been conditions conducive to building one.”
Good point, but I fear you might be mining an empty shaft if you ask Dennis to contextualise Trotskyism in time and ask for an assessment of other parties and how far they have degraded and run down the socialist project.
“The point has been made a few times above that this failure is down to external conditions. But these external conditions are best described as the real world, the world is as it is, not as we would like it to be, or our theory tells us it ought to be, or even less as our theory tells us it will be.”
If, as Dennis points out, Trotskyist groups have failed to capitalise on the real world it can only be:
A. solely due to their internal regimes.
B. solely due to the external context.
C. a combination of the two.
Evidently it is C — a combination of external and internal environments that relate to and condition each other. But of course Dennis tends to extreme and hermetic conclusions. The faux subtelty of his argument that allows for degrees of pathology within left groups is trully unimaginative. Dennis might have noticed that crises of small or larger degree are a fact of political life in any party.
As I have argued above — the success or failure of political parties in no way should be considered in isolation, as taken for granted and unchangeable. Moreover the reformist party is a different beast to a revolutionary one — the former pinning its hopes on capitalist stability, the latter on the inevitability of capitalist crisis.
Trotsky understood well the relationship between political leaderships and the rank and file. A reformist party is particularly prone to have a disconnect between its organism and the interests of its members:
A leadership is shaped in the process of clashes between the different classes or the friction between the different layers within a given class. Having once arisen, the leadership invariably arises above its class and thereby becomes predisposed to the pressure and influence of other classes. The proletariat may ‘tolerate’ for a long time a leadership that has already suffered a complete inner degeneration but has not as yet had the opportunity to express this degeneration amid great events. A great historic shock is necessary to reveal sharply the contradiction between the leadership and the class. The mightiest historical shocks are wars and revolutions.
Here Trotsky articulates the connection between internal political degeneration and external events. He then goes on to argue:
But even in cases where the old leadership has revealed its internal corruption, the class cannot improvise immediately a new leadership, especially if it has not inherited from the previous period strong revolutionary cadres capable of utilising the collapse of the old leading party. The Marxist, ie dialectic and not scholastic interpretation, of the inter-relationship between a class and its leadership does not leave a single stone unturned.
The question is seemingly one of internal regime, having cadres steeled in struggle, with political experience, oratory skills, elan, etc. But that steeling is forged in the external environment — in struggle. There is an inter-relationship between a party or group and the external world of which it is part.
A cult might be considered one that has no internal dissent and minimised contact with the outside world. Evidently this is not what Trotsky has in view, nor the practice of many Trotskyist groups.
Making a fetish of a theory that you try and squeeze reality into is another — it’s a messy business. I always try to analyse the context within which groups are operating and its connection to the past, rather than seek to view the world through a narrow and arbitrary lens.
Dennis Tourish, June 30, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Dave suggests that the failure of Trotskyist groups can be gauged as explicable: “:a. solely due to their internal regimes, b. solely due to the external context, or c. a combination of the two.’”
He argues that the answer is c. I have actually said the same above, and do so here again. Clearly, a combination of a and b are involved in this. Unfortunately, as I will argue here, this does not rescue the overall position of those who advocate continued Trotskyist party building.
Two things are notable. Firstly, since some of the variance that has produced irrelevance for Trotskyist parties is caused by external conditions (note: not all the variance), most far left groups then assume that this means there is no need to discuss their internal regime. This regime, let us remind ourselves, is generally characterised by gross intolerance of internal dissent; sectarianism towards all other groups; a fetishisation of a few ideological points from the arsenal of Bolshevism at the expense of fresh thinking; endless splitting (as recently with the DSP); frantic urgency, which exhausts people in circular activity and again militates against creative thought; fantastic efforts at recruitment, which usually produce a revolving door syndrome; fierce sacrifices by existing members (in terms of time, money etc), since the group thinks that’s its growth is vital for the future of humanity; an attitude of certainty towards things that are objectively uncertain; and over-conformity around whatever the designated immediate priority is supposed to be.
A small example of the latter: the International Marxist Tendency is the organisation founded by the late Ted Grant on his expulsion from Militant in 1991, now led by his protege Alan Woods. Even today, when its website reports on the organisation’s national and international conferences, without a whisper of irony, all resolutions, documents and elections are described as having been accepted “unanimously.”
I only know two contexts in which everybody agrees with each other all the time on all important issues. One is a graveyard, the other is a cult. I had an email from a former CWI member recently, in which the following telling observation was made: “ I’ve moved from thinking that it was all a noble project that sadly came to nothing to now thinking the world we have is better than any world they would have given us”. Such, for many, is the end product of substantial experience within a Trotskyist group. And it is vital that what leads to this is discussed, learned from and (in my view) moved on from.
The second notable thing, as I have tried to argue here, is that if the external environment (ie real world) has been so inhospitable to the Trotskyist party building project over an 80-plus year period, a period when I suspect that every conceivable variant of historical circumstances has occurred, those advocating such a course now should indicate what “objective situation” they envision arising in the future that we haven’t already experienced, and that will therefore enable their project to come to fruition.
If they can’t do so, it can only mean that the future holds continuing irrelevance. To repeat: the world is as it is, not as we would like it to be, and certainly not as some a priori theory would dictate. I believe that an approach that has tried to gain some toehold of influence within this world over such a long time, without a glimmer of success, has little to offer. Other perspectives, methods, goals, and models of social change are needed. But you can’t develop these while simultaneously clutching to the early manifestos of the Fourth (or Third) International, used ultimately as a comfort blanket to ward off unpalatable facts.
Dave Latham, July 1, 2008 (From Leftwrites) “Those advocating such a course now should indicate what ‘objective situation’ they envision arising in the future that we haven’t already experienced, and that will therefore enable their project to come to fruition.”
I think the crux of the matter is a. whether or not we believe Marx’s theory of capitalistic crisis is still relevant and b. if we believe we have reached the end of history, of nationalism. If economic crisis and nationalism still abound, we do have reason to believe that a conjuncture of these two elemental forces will produce a revolutionary situation in the future — but I can’t say when and how, sorry Dennis, my crystal ball is currently getting serviced.
As a student of history will appreciate, not every historical moment is the same. As I pointed out above, Trotskyist groups actually did very well in some areas in the 1930s — Bruschal, Minneapolis and Spain — considering the circumstances. The existent of a massive and hostile Communist (Stalinist) movement was no small impediment to development — an obstacle now gone.
Social Democracy is obviously still here but as my last post hopefully signified, it is a very different beast to a Stalinist behemoth and there exists quite a large chasm between it and its support base.
As someone suggested above, I think Darren, there still exists a need for a revolutionary socialist party. What I’m not clear about is whether Dennis thinks that that project in general is entirely forlorn, or that it needs calibration or a large overhaul to make it function better. If Dennis believes in that project, I’d like to hear his proposed remedies.
Jonathon, July 1, 2008 @ 8:02 pm (From Leftwrites) I’ve read this thread a couple of times. It is really too much to say all that could be said about it, but I think Dave Latham’s latest comment shows the blockage that precludes this thread from any development. If a. and b. are correct this doesn’t mean that ’party building’ (ie preparing for revolutionary situations, that is: committing ourselves to something that doesn’t exist in our situation) is our only alternative. The assumption that really existing “party building” has anything to do with Marx’s or Lenin’s thought is wrong. Neither had building the party as their major task. In Marx’s case the notion of party that we have didn’t exist. In Lenin’s case the party was given and the question was political hegemony not “join the party”.
What if it is the case that the present formations on the socialist left (Socialist Alternative, DSP, Solidarity, etc, play the same role towards thought that Stalinism played: that they actively stop people identifying with Marxism? That they discredit Marxism? That they make it more difficult to talk about radical alternatives to capitalism and actually drive people back into reformism?
A key response to Stalinism was resignation, “I want to change the world but what is on offer is simply offensive”. Jean Paul Sartre is a key actor who broke through this resignation in the post-war French context. But the point remains: why should anyone agree that if we do identify with Marx’s or Lenin’s contribution, that in our situation in the history of struggle against capitalism “party building” is our best option? This is a hidden assumption that hasn’t even been touched by those supporting the status quo. That the “party builders” claim to rely onsome version of Marx or Lenin doesn’t at all exhaust Marx’s or Lenin’s (to give just two names) contribution.
My concern is that the basic premises of this debate are wrong. You cannot take “party building” as an assuption to the question of why “party building” has gone so wrong for Marxists in the Australian context. It just doesn’t work.
But carry on.
Bob Gould, July 2, 2008 (From Leftwrites) As this discussion is still proceeding, I want to make a few additional observations, without prejudice to my major critique of Mick Armstrong’s pamphlet on propagandism, which I hope to publish in a couple of weeks.
My aim in my first contribution was rather empirical. I wanted to puncture the closed-circle atmosphere and the politically ignorant triumphalism surrounding Socialist Alternative and to sound a note of warning against narrow-minded propagandism in general, which is the besetting sin of most far-left groups.
For years I’ve been beating the drum for a big public discussion on the far left about strategy and tactics in the workers movement and about what socialism might look like after the defeat of Stalinism.
I was trying to provoke a discussion mainly among those still in some way committed to the socialist project, however we may need to revise it. From my point of view there are no socialist sacred cows.
I was also conscious that we live in a time when the prevailing political atmosphere is anti-socialist and the whole ideological apparatus of the ruling class is directed at demolishing the very idea of socialism and trying to eliminate even the memory of past independent class movements by pushing the whole of the trade union and labour movements to the right.
I’m interested in defending the better traditions of the labour movement and the working class movement against this relentless ideological assault of the bourgeoisie.
On Ozleft we’ve gone to some pains to put up all kinds of documents and historical pieces to do with past struggles of the workers movement, which I don’t regard in the ultimatist and insulting way that many on the far left do.
It’s important to defend the conquests and past activities of the workers movement while at the same time criticising them from the point of view of accumulated historical experience.
Overt ideological assaults on the working class tradition, combined with attempts to demobilise the working class, are hardly new. I came into politics in the early 1950s, a period of reaction in Australia, and I’ve seen plenty of ebbs and flows since then.
The political explosion in which I participated in the mid-1950s was the beginning of the end for high Stalinism and produced a political milieu the right wing of which rapidly lost interest in working class politics after their Stalinist illusions were shattered. I and others were part of the minority left wing of that critical milieu.
I’m reminded of the fact that Lenin, in 1915 in Switzerland, trying to educate groups of young Swiss, German and Austrian socialists, observed that while the socialist revolution might eventually come, he probably wouldn’t live to see it. Yet a mere three years later he and the Bolsheviks were in power in one third of the world.
The critical left wing of the 1950s was a minority, but it was a good training ground for the 1960s. By the end of the 1960s there was a rebirth of interest in socialist ideas, forged in the crucible of the struggle against the Vietnam War.
Small groups of socialists, trained in adverse times (in a non-sectarian spirit, at least in Sydney), were for a time in the vanguard of many tens of thousands of people in the mid- and late-1960s. In the mobilisations against the Vietnam War, the activities of small minorities of socialists were a very large factor.
In a way, this produced other political problems, but the mantra being developed by people on the right of the current political discussion, such as Dennis and others, that Trotskyists have never amounted to a row of beans, is extraordinarily ahistorical.
Not to put too fine a point on it, it seems likely to me that a broad range of groups and individuals originating in the left opposition to Stalinism will in a few years be the only Marxian socialists left.
It also seems likely to me that by then the broad public and the oppressed will be interested in Marxist and socialist ideas.
Some of my friends accuse me of being an incorrigible optimist, but I think it’s highly likely that in the absence of something totally new being invented, and how it would be invented I can’t imagine, that the crises inherent in the capitalist system, particularly right now, will lead to increased interest in Marxist and socialist ideas.
This is the only context in which it’s possible to explain the international mantra of ruling class ideologues who want to exorcise the spectre of the year 1968, and if possible abolish it from the political calendar.
As an old socialist militant whose knowledge and horizons have continued to expand through 50-plus years of political activity and reading, and I don’t think I’m naive.
A couple of years ago I read On the Edge, the book that Dennis Tourish wrote jointly with Tim Wohlforth, and I’ve read Tim Wohlforth’s autobiography and other books of experiences in the workers’ and socialist movements.
It’s clear from On the Edge and Dennis’s contributions to this discussion that he has given up on the socialist project, as I would understand it.
In the book, Tourish and Wohlforth sometimes get carried away by a fairly normal temptation to caricature their opponents, particularly Ted Grant. (It would be difficult to caricature Gerry Healy because the real phenomenon was actually larger than the life of any caricature.)
When I have a go in a critical way at the cultish possibilities of some types of socialist organisation I make no apology for that, and in fact make use of the writings of Tourish, Wohlforth and others on such matters. It’s of little value to shoot the messenger, even if you disagree with him or her on some matters.
I also think, from a broad socialist point of view, it’s reasonable and useful to discuss the psychological factors that operate in socialist groups. Socialists who remain ignorant of psychological questions are politically disarming themselves.
It’s worth noting that when Zinoviev, under Lenin’s tutelage, was trying to come to terms with the bureaucratisation of the European socialist movement after the 1914 collapse into chauvinism, he made considerable use of Robert Michel’s seminal piece of critical sociology, European Social Democracy (Political Parties). This was independent of the fact that Michel’s critique was politically from the right.
Lenin had no time for shooting the messenger. There’s nothing wrong with having an argument or discussion with people who’ve given up on the socialist project, but my main interest is to induce a serious, and very overdue, discussion among those still in some way committed to class struggle and the socialist project.
I’m particularly interested in reaching younger socialists to help shake them out of any mood of petty bourgeois complacency.
I’m willing to be polite to those who’ve given it all away, but for clarity of discussion it would be useful to get some kind of idea from some of the more enigmatic contributors as to where they stand on the broad strategic questions.
I’d like to know, from people such as Dennis, Maria and a few others, where they stand on three or four broad questions:
1. Is some class-based socialist project, however revised and improved, still a valid proposition, from your point of view?
2. Does the class struggle still exist?
3. Is the concrete struggle against the imperialist power of the main capitalist metropolitan powers still a desirable project?
4. Is a broad defence of the good aspects of the traditions of the workers and socialist movements still desirable?
For my part, no matter how sectarian and insular the adherents of some of the socialist groups may be, they’re still my comrades from a broad historical point of view, even if they’re comrades I would like to take by the scruff of the neck and shake out of their idiot, philistine complacency.
To people who don’t in any sense agree with the four issues I’ve outlined, I still have plenty to say in a civilised way, but I don’t have a great deal of interest in them as political activists.
JO, July 4, 2008 (From Ozleft) Bob’s questions are inherently sectarian and I’d wager would be answered either in the negative or with non-comprehension or misapprehension by the vast majority of progressive or potentially progressive people in Australia or the entire world.
Secondly, whether any one answers them either in the affirmative or the negative is irrelevant to the valid criticisms they may make of sectarianism or cultism in far left political organisations.
Liz, July 2, 2008 (From Leftwrites) I agree with what Johnathon has said entirely.
As for Bob Gould’s four questions: I would say yes to all — it’s the revision and improvement that interests me — you know, the Marxist bit where we look at the world that we exist in rather than what Dave has warned against in a slightly different context: “Making a fetish of a theory which you try and squeeze reality into”. For me, this is what plagues most Trotskyist groups in Australia. And traditions are great — as long as they don’t prove to be barriers to actually seeing what is happening now. Like.
Cabbies cabbies cabbies cabbies cabbies cabbies cabbies. If I say it lots maybe some of the great minds of the socialist tradition who claim to hang out here might be interested in thinking about things where Dave Latham left off with his post about the cabbies many moons ago, which I picked up with a not very interesting article about the meeting, which has now expanded into more stuff about international student labour markets.
Can I goad anyone into posting anything in response? Even someone telling me that the cabbies are totally irrelevant to anything would be a start. It would be something. Then maybe I will bother posting something back about the exciting project of building a mass-based organisation out of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance that is taking shape, and the Marxist analysis of the changing labour markets and class composition of New York city that their organisers work within to build an effective, militant organisation out of some of the most oppressed sections of the working class, the alliances migrant cabbies have made with the black working class …
Maria, July 2, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Bob, my reply to your previous post is that I am neither with you nor against you.
It does not help to attach any political label in discussing the issue of cultism, which is a universal disease and which I have recognised in one of the socialist groups. I think it is generally advisable to judge the opinions of others without prejudice.
Chrys, July 2, 2008 (From Leftwrites) I was interested to see that Socialist Alternative is holding a conference in August entitled Ideas to Challenge Capitalism (ironic reference to Rudd’s 2020 “ideas” summit?) This actually sounds quite interesting because it seems to promise the sort of discussion that many contributors in this thread have been hankering after, which is one that considers socialism in the context of the present.
When you look at the program, however, it appears that it will be less forum and more an educational presentation with the ideas in question pre-prescribed (ie those set down by Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, of course). In that case, isn’t the title of the conference a little misleading? I mean, tautological, really? Perhaps I am a bit naive here, but is it possible to challenge capitalism prior to Marx?
Chav, July 3, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Chrys, from my understanding of the program a range of topics will be discussed with an initial presentation informed by a Marxist understanding of the world. These topics include (among others) Islamism, the modern working class, the modern family and the Lebanese civil war. Some of these issues the Marxist greats (Marx himself, Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky)would have had encountered before, some they wouldn’t have. The point is that they established and developed a body of theory that no doubt the conference organisers believe best explains the world we live in and how to change it for the better.
As for the discussion, well that’s up to whoever shows up and what they say. I can’t imagine though, that the majority of conference attendees will be interested in the kind of discussion that many commentators on this thread are hankering for.
As for your second question, no I don’t think you can either adequately understand or challenge capitalism without at least a basic understanding of what Marx was on about. Radicals prior to Marx, the utopian socialists, attempted to do so but without understanding the internal dynamics of the system, and their pleas for social change fell on the deaf ears of the rich and powerful or led them to cut themselves off from society, one group in particular living in a commune in the South American jungle. That’s a very basic outline anyway.
Darren, July 3, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Having looked at the conference program,(and being familiar with SA speakers) I’d say the session titled Spontaneity, organisation and leadership, would be the one that relates most to this thread. Unfortunately it only features in the Melbourne leg. I’d encourage anyone who has been posting here and is in Melbourne to get along and have a look. (but, Maria, leave your prejudice at the door).
I think what has been missing from this discusion is a look at what the new Solidarity group is doing. They share the same parentage as SA and Bob seems to think that they are more likeable. Holding them up to the light alongside SA may be revealing.
Dave Latham, July 4, 2008 (From Leftwrites) As far as I can see (in Sydney, anyway), Solidarity is carrying on in much the vein that the ISO has for the past few years, with an added dose of “movementism”, and an extra dash of sectarianism.
Did it damage the DSP when they split the Jabiluka campaign, establishing an environmental, as opposed to land rights, perspective, because they couldn’t control the campaign? Talk about control, why don’t you just call the Socialist Alliance DSP rump and friends — tell it how it is.
Wombo, July 4, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Dave, why don’t I? Because it simply isn’t true. You can keep on believing it if it helps you sleep well at night, of course. But it will be no more true because you repeat it to yourself more often and louder.
If by “DSP rump and friends”, however, you mean: a membership of over 700 (the vast majority of whom are not members of any affiliate group, DSP or otherwise, and likely never have been); a broad, socialist organisation that doesn’t hound its members to agree with the written-in-stone lore of one or another Marxist tendency and its program, but instead encourages democratic debate and discussion on these, and more relevant, issues (like a socialist response to climate change, for example); active in a wide range of campaigns across the country; remains open to the affiliation of other groups, and has branches and members active in areas and towns that most of the inner-city far left has likely only heard of, I’m more than happy to accept your attempt at an insult, because it will have no effect on the reality of Socialist Alliance. The problem with the Goebbels tradition of distorting reality, Dave, is that it doesn’t stand up to the naked facts.
This is not to say that the Socialist Alliance is a runaway success. We’ve had our problems, and will continue to face some tough challenges. But the score-card shows that a left unity project is necessary, and can work — will have to work if the left is going to regain any kind of meaningful relevancy in Australia.
Dave Latham, July 4, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Yeah, keep telling yourself paper members mean something Wombo. I don’t know how you measure success for an electoral formation but I might have thought election results were rather important. Bah Bow. Strike One.
Maybe it’s left unity. But foisting your insipid paper on to the alliance and bureaucratically manipulating by numbers didn’t assist very much there now did it. Bah Bow. Strike Two.
A party, half of whose members wear stripey clown pants, will never get far. Bah Bow.
Bob Gould, July 4, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Wombo’s contributions to this discussion are classic expressions of the propaganda of the DSP majority. Wombo and his associates are not very interested in any discussion of the methodological issues about socialist activity, they just use every website discussion as an opportunity to throw a bit of abuse at their various opponents on the left and to give us all an extensive lecture incorporating the completely fantastic Potemkin Village story about the DSP majority and the Socialist Alliance.
The difficulty with Wombo’s formulaic propaganda is that literally no one outside DSP and Socialist Alliance circles believes any of it. In the various cities other people on the left who encounter the DSP can see for themselves how fantastic these assertions are.
Wombo claims the Socialist Alliance has 700 members nationally. A while back they were claiming 2000, and both claims are equally fantastic.
A while ago the Socialist Alliance may have had 2000 people who signed a bit of paper to help get the organisation registered for electoral purposes, and now only 700 will do that.
To claim that the 2000 or the 700 are in any real sense members of anything is obvious nonsense, and everyone active on the left can see that’s the case, judging by the tiny numbers the DSP mobilises anywhere for anything.
Yet Wombo keeps belting out this stuff as if there might be someone out there who will accept his story as good coin. I don’t know why he bothers.
He keeps talking about the Socialist Alliance as some kind of alliance when it’s clearly not. The DSP majority has driven out all the other affiliates while trying to blame them for being driven out. The DSP majority has also driven out most of the independent-minded people who initially joined the alliance — three waves of them, in fact.
This DSP majority propaganda has been punctured at length by many people, in particular the minority expelled by the DSP majority.
The interesting thing about Wombo’s intervention is that he’s actually defending the propagandism of the group with which the DSP majority is now most closely allied, Socialist Alternative.
A pragmatic alliance between the DSP leadership and the Socialist Alternative leadership has been quite apparent in Sydney for nearly a year, since the time of the big mass meeting preparing the tactics for the APEC protests, where much to their surprise the DSP and Socialist Alternative leaderships lost the vote at the 600-strong meeting even after stacking it with every available member of both groups from all over Australia.
The ordinary activists in different spheres voted overwhelmingly against the DSP-Socialist Alternative bloc after a lengthy discussion on tactics. (I went to that meeting intending to vote against anything too extravagant in the way of tactics, given the difficult circumstances, but the argument at the meeing persuaded me to change my vote. The people proposing a slightly more militant approach to the protest seemed slightly more careful in their formulation, and the sheer size of the meeting convinced me something more militant was needed to avert the possibility of a wild and unnecessary total confrontation with the cops. The DSP and Socialist Alternative leaderships were inflexible. They had made their decision to ram their view through, and they took very unkindly to the decision of the meeting.)
Wombo makes some tendentious assertions about events in a couple of spheres of activity, attacking Solidarity for alleged sectarianism and other crimes.
In the absence of any comprehensive argument it must be said that he’s making slanderous assertions.
Wombo makes sweeping allegations about Solidarity concerning some differences in the indigenous agitation against the Northern Territory intervention, in particular. He doesn’t, however, give any background, just his mantra: DSP-Socialist Alternative good, Solidarity and others bad.
I’ve made some inquiries with people involved in this agitation and Wombo’s story is a travesty of the real circumstances.
In fact, a conflict erupted in indigenous circles between a couple of families who are well known in Sydney, on the one hand, and a large number of younger indigenous activists on the other.
Such conflicts are not uncommon among indigenous political activists. According to my informants, not all of whom are in Solidarity, the younger activists are actually a larger group than the two families.
Forced to choose by the circumstances developing around them, the Solidarity people and the student independents went with the group of younger activists, while the DSP and Socialist Alternative leaderships stuck with the two families.
I have no strong views on tactics for non-indigenous rebels in this situation. Considerable experience in Sydney over many years has taught me there’s no mileage at all for non-indigenous socialists being factional in conflicts in indigenous politics.
Wombo’s highly emotive account of this conflict is just another variant of his mantra: DSP-Socialist Alternative good, everyone else bad.
It’s fairly easy to see why this bloc has emerged in Sydney between the DSP and Socialist Alternative leaderships. They’re in no sense competitors, as the DSP an electoralist formation with little student activity and influence, and Socialist Alternative is mainly a student organisation.
The two leaderships appear to think that by throwing their collective weight around in movement activities they can blow all competitors out of the water.
That’s a complete mis-estimation of the political situation.
Mike G, July 5, 2008 (From Leftwrites) I have come to this discussion very late and haven’t attempted to read most of the earlier contributions. However, Mark Goudkamp’s contribution is a breath of fresh air because he raises the general issue for socialists of how we relate to activists in the ALP at a time when there are wall-to-wall Labor governments.
As someone who spent many years in both the Australian IS and British SWP, I would like to think that lines of communication apart from these chatrooms and some serious discussions/debates could develop between Solidarity and Socialist Alternative in the medium term. But as long as the notion of propogandism continues to inform the practice of most of the Australian far left, this seems unlikely to happen. Paths in practice will not often meet. Declaring we need a socialist alternative to Labor is one thing, working through the practical and political minutiae of this in the context of, for example, a discussion in a Labor Party branch about the nature of the NT intervention, is quite another.
Socrates, July 7, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Bob Gould’s post of July 2 included the following: “I’d like to know, from people such as Dennis, Maria and a few others, where they stand on three or four broad questions: 1. Is some class-based socialist project, however revised and improved, still a valid proposition, from your point of view? 2. Does the class struggle still exist? 3. Is the concrete struggle against the imperialist power of the main capitalist metropolitan powers still a desirable project? 4. Is a broad defence of the good aspects of the traditions of the workers and socialist movements still desirable?
These questions sound a lot like a church elder responding to a report that one of his representatives has been accused of abusing younger members of the congregation.
The elder’s response is to merely challenge those outside of his church group on their commitment to that group’s form of Christianity, and to verify their right to ask questions through their interpretation of selected Biblical texts.
The issue of this thread is unacceptable behaviour, not ideology or beliefs.
Groups that preach social justice globally while practicing social injustice internally (as previous contributors have pointed out), lack both internal cohesion and public credibility. Future prospects might be better served by enhanced public scrutiny.
Dave Latham, July 7, 2008 From Leftwrites) “The issue of this thread is one of unacceptable behaviour, not of ideology or beliefs.”
Thanks for the clarification of what the thread is about Principal Skinner. All hail Socrates and his fetish for psychobabble.
I thought Bob’s questions were what they were, not your paranoid and rather eccentric reading. Bob wants to bring the argument — as I have wanted to — back into historical and theoretical context rather than drifting on the plane of philosophical speculation and half-baked psychoanalysis.
What are the specific instances of unacceptable behaviour you refer to?
“Groups that preach social justice globally while practicing social injustice internally (as previous contributors have pointed out), lack both internal cohesion and public credibility. Future prospects might be better served by enhanced public scrutiny.”
If you think political outfits and movements run like well-oiled machines and are conflict-free, you are living in cloud cuckoo land. It’s public knowledge that Labor, the Liberals, etc, have internal issues but it doesn’t stop them operating and garnering support. In fact, if political outfits had to stop functioning due to internal problems as you suggest, there would be no political parties at all. Socrates should name himself Plato — the man who seeks for the perfect form but whose mind is stuck in the cave.
@ndy, July 7, 2008 (From Leftwrites) At dire risk of drifting off to sleep on a plane bound for The Land of Philosophical Speculation and Half-Baked Psychoanalysis, I thought I’d do my trendy best to answer Uncle Bob’s searing questions:
1) Is some class-based socialist project, however revised and improved, still a valid proposition, from your point of view?
2) Does the class struggle still exist?
3) Is the concrete struggle against the imperialist power of the main capitalist metropolitan powers still a desirable project?
As opposed to what: a non-concrete struggle? And I believe that a struggle against other, non-imperialist forms of power exercised by the metropoles is also desirable.
4) Is a broad defence of the good aspects of the traditions of the workers’ and socialist movements still desirable?
Yes, but not as desirable as global libertarian social revolution.
Dennis Tourish, July 7, 2008 (From Leftwrites) I regret that Dave above imagines that name calling and personal abuse constitutes logical argument. His previous posts were much more reasonable, and, while I disagree with him, I thought he made his points with considerable skill and conviction. His last post, however, had more in common with those of Chav, which combine bile and incoherence in equal measure.
Why is it “psychobabble” to suggest that groups can exert a great deal of pressure on their members to ensure destructive conformity? That sometimes groups prioritise conformity over constructive debate, that they have been known to allow their leaders too much power, that their practice can be destructively sectarian (witness: many of the recent posts on this thread), that they prioritise sacred texts that act as a straitjacket on innovative thinking, that frantic activity and an obsession with recruitment can run counter to their declared aims? On this thread and elsewhere (there are links above, if anyone wants to pursue the matter), I have argued that in many far left groups these issues go so far as to create cult-like formations.
Chav in his usual splendid manner suggests that anyone raising these issues is a right-wing troll. Again, the failure of logic is obvious. Even if those of us who argue this were right-wing (and Chav has no more idea of my political opinions than I have of his hair colour, or even whether he has any), the argument stands or falls on its own merits.
Likewise, with the questions Bob posed earlier about what people like myself think about class struggle, socialism and imperialism. Thus: if I agreed wholeheartedly with him, would it validate or invalidate the analysis I put forward here? Or: if I disagreed with him wholeheartedly, would that analysis then fall? These issues are all great topics for discussion (and have been often debated — much more often than the kinds of issues raised here). But whether they fit on this thread, when the issue is how the far left organises itself, I doubt. Rather, they facilitate those on the far left who, when their own practice is subject to scrutiny, attempt to divert attention from it by shouting: “But what about imperialism?”
The group dynamics that I have raised here can be observed in a whole range of groups and organisations — too many to mention, including incidentally in some particularly oppressive corporate organisations. Why on earth should far left groups be any different? Possession of the Transitional Program, and an ability to quote Lenin does not confer immunity from the psychological processes that afflict all other mortals.
I am certainly not arguing, and never have, that any group committed to the socialist project will end up like this. But I do believe that those who are inspired by the Trotskyist party-building project share these problems to one degree or another. And a willingness to consider this, to think, might just lead to better practice. It isn’t a law of history that you have to maintain in pristine form organisational practices created 70, 80 or 100 years ago.
Dave and Chav may dismiss this as psychobabble, if they wish. It won’t change the reality on the ground by one jot, or bring them an inch closer to achieving their goals.
Robert Bollard, July 7, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Andy wrote: “As opposed to what: a non-concrete struggle? And I believe that a struggle against other, non-imperialist forms of power exercised by the metropoles is also desirable.”
Concrete or made of silly putty is, I would think, a minor point. The point is the significance of imperialism. Andy has, I think, revealed here a weakness in the standard anarchist approach in which power is abstracted from the forces that wield it and “non-imperialist” power is equal to imperialist power — being told to sit at the back by a school teacher is equivalent to being invaded. Imperialist power has bombers; that’s the point. One million Iraqi’s dead are more important than any number of members of small Leninist groups who may have been treated badly.
To make this (shall we say) concrete? Cults exist and wreak unpleasantness on those who fall within their ambit. At their worst they are a very graphic example of how alienation leaves people vulnerable to abuse. Still, it could be worse. Alienation leads people to volunteer for imperialist wars. You want a cult? Join the marines.
BTW, it’s of interest that as I type these lines the ABC is highlighting allegations that George Pell has covered up sexual abuse by priests. This worries me as, like me, he’s a fanatical Tigers fan and I wonder whether I should abandon my team for fear of cultism. But I digress. The worst example of a cult arising from within the Trotskyist tradition I can think of is the Larouchites. Of course, they abandoned both Trotskyism and, for that matter, any identification with the left, before they exhibited the full flower of their cultism. It’s interesting that they haven’t been commented on in this thread.
Finally, of course, Andy might point to the term used in his comment above ”by the metropole” to argue that he’s aware of this distinction. However, as I’m aware of that term it might as well be a synonym for ”the imperialst power” — or the culture thereof at least. So, Andy, if you can explain the distinction I’d be greatful.
@ndy, July 8, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Robert, my point — perhaps badly expressed — was to seek to establish precisely what is meant by this phrase; that is, in posing this question, is Bob implying that the most important or politically significant aspect of power as it exists within the “main capitalist metropolitan powers” — such as Australia, presumably — is imperialism?
Secondly, implicit in this question, it seems to me, is an understanding of the relationship between power in its imperialist and non-imperialist expressions. What, exactly, is this relationship? On my reading, this raises a number of questions for the Marxist understanding of history and politics, especially as it concerns issues of (capitalist) development, and the relationship between — for example — the Western metropoles and non-Western periphery.
For what it’s worth, I think that much of the history of Trotskyism in the post-WWII period can be understood in light of how these questions resolved themselves, especially concerning the development of various anti-colonial and “national liberation” movements, and the attitude of Western (neo-)Trotskyist political formations towards them. The DSP, for example, abandoned claims to Trotskyist orthodoxy partly as a result of its dissatisfaction with what it regarded as the orthodox position on these questions.
All of which, perhaps, is a rather long-winded way of saying that I didn’t intend, and I’m fairly certain I haven’t actually succeeded in, “abstracting power from the forces that wield it”. That said, not being a country, and thus never having been invaded, I can’t say with absolute certainty that being so is equivalent to being told to sit at the back of the class by a school teacher.
In any case, with regard the subject of anarchism and imperialism, there is some literature on the subject, perhaps the most relevant recent example being Benedict Anderson’s Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination (Verso, 2005). It’s noteworthy, if only for once again bringing to light the generally neglected fact that the anarchist movement has generally had a far different — which is to say, nuanced — relationship to anti-colonial thinkers and movements than the general depiction of anarchists as cretins incapable of understanding — to be precise: expressing — much other than their infantile resentment of Gubmint would suggest.
Beyond this, I would point to recent works by folks such as Uri Gordon (Anarchy Alive!, Pluto Press, 2008) and David Graeber (Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion and Desire, AK Press, 2007) as constituting evidence of a greater degree of sophistication in the anarchist understanding of power and its operations than you appear to assume — especially as it relates to globalisation and the presumed erosion in state sovereignty this phenomenon is generally understood to imply.
A few final points.
1) In highlighting the term concrete, I was inviting Bob to be explicit. The “struggle against imperialism” in the imperialist heartlands can obviously take potentially many forms.
2) You make a distinction between 1 million dead Iraqis, on the one hand, and possibly abusive (cultic) Leninist groupuscules, on the other. If the point is that the first is more morally heinous than the second, it’s banal. But I think drawing this comparison is, as Dennis has suggested, an attempt to avoid tackling the issues. Further, it obscures another elementary moral point, which is that we are most responsible for those matters over which we are able to exert most control. Finally, it implies that being concerned with stopping imperialist slaughter and being critical of authoritarian tendencies within groups or movements formally committed to pursuing these and other such worthy aims is in some way contradictory. They are not.
3) Your references to George Pell’s role in covering up sexual abuse on the one hand and the existence of the Larouche cult on the other hand suggest to me that you’re hardly serious in your intentions, which obviously begs the question of whether or not I should even bother engaging with you over it.
4) I really don’t understand the point you’re trying to make in your final paragraph.
Dave Latham, July 8, 2008 (From Leftwrites) I think Bob’s use of the term concrete might mean economic and military exploitation rather than discourses of and about power, but I might be wrong. I find this following observation by Andy particularly glib and repugnant: “Not being a country, and thus never having been invaded, I can’t say with absolute certainty that being so is equivalent to being told to sit at the back of the class by a school teacher.”
Yes they are different things aren’t they Andy, incommensurable.
Andy has wanted to know what class struggle is, but I take it he has issue more with the term concrete than with class struggle, in which case he should just come out and say so.
Class struggle can be assisted (and hindered) by theory but class struggle is above all workers organising in the workplace and battling with capital on other fronts as well. We can have a meaningful class struggle without theory, but we can’t have a weighty or meaningful class struggle without a workers’ movement. My recommendation is that invovlement in trade unions is non-negotiable for the left who believe organised labour is the key agent for transforming this world to something decent.
Dennis, the response of Socrates response to Bob: “These questions sound a lot like a church elder responding to a report that one of his representatives has been accused of abusing younger members of the congregation”, is really beyond the pale.
I note you don’t have much to say about that. Of course, that doesn’t make my response right, but I’m not inclined to show respect to people who talk like arseholes. That’s my foible.
“I am certainly not arguing, and never have, that any group committed to the socialist project will end up like this. But I do believe that those who are inspired by the Trotskyist party building project share these problems, to one degree or another.”
Certainly didn’t come across that way Dennis, but I’m glad to hear it. So is the thesis that cultishness can infect any organisation?
Jill, July 8, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Dave, you really haven’t been paying attention, if you only just understood that this is Dennis Tourish’s argument.
Dave Latham, July 8, 2008 (From Leftwrites) I think Dennis has suggested that it afflicts the far left far more than any other organisation or group — but Dennis might clarify. If it is no different, I wonder if he is invading corporate blogs, the Brownies and his faculty with similar warnings!
Maria, July 8, 2008 (From Leftwrites) What a reluctance there is by some on this thread to discuss the issue of cultism. The more effort that is made to distract attention from this issue, the more credible does Socrates’s analogy with the church behaviour become. As many cult specialists indicate, a political cult is one of the major types and the issue should not be sidetracked, ridiculed or ignored. Many people have documented the “revolving door” syndrome in some political groups. This is a mild way to describe the syndrome. In reality, a cult sucks people in, uses them as long as they are useful to the group, and spits them out whenever it is convenient.
In this thread, myself and others have been trying to explain the relationships between the behaviour (symptoms) of the members of the group (such as Bob and others witnessed) and the reason why the members behave in such a manner. If you think that these explanations are philosophical speculation and half-baked psychoanalysis please explain why.
Nobody is talking about the general behaviour of established political parties or groups. This issue is the cultic behaviour of some groups and there are certain criteria for recognising harmful mind control that is exercised by a cult. Such criteria have been clearly explained in many books and articles, including “Ideological Intransigence” by Dennis Tourish.
Dave Latham, July 8, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Maria, I’m not about to start expounding on the cultishness of left groups for the simple reason that I don’t accept the thesis.
If I start asserting that you, Dennis, or any other number of contributors are damaged individuals who all share a fixation on the practice of small left groups and thereby seek to blame others for your mental problems and divert attention from your neuroses, should you respond to that charge as I express it?
If you ignore or evade my proposition, does that vindicate me and my theory about you? If you deny my proposition, why should I believe you?
The proposal of left cultishness is your thesis, so the onus is on you to prove it, and not just by assertion. I have yet to hear anything concrete on which to approach your dubious proposition. What is the mechanism and process for mind control? How does it manifest itself exactly?
The question of dosage and persuasion is rather important but I have yet to find any political, industrial or corporate outfit that did not attempt to persuade and organise people.
@ndy, July 8, 2008 (From Leftwrites) Dave, what Bob means is up to Bob to explain, but I think I’ve once again failed to explain my purpose in inquiring as to the meaning of the term concrete. To put it as simply as I can: what is meant by the term concrete, and what are non-concrete forms of struggle against the imperialist power of the main capitalist metropolitan powers? To place this question in more (ahem) concrete terms: on February 15, 2003, it’s estimated that anywhere from six million to 30 million people took to the streets in cities across the world to protest against the commencement of the war in Iraq. Was this a concrete form of struggle, or not? In my view, the most concrete form of opposition to imperialist impositions is armed conflict.
I took part in this demonstration in Melbourne, and marched behind a banner reading “No War But the Class War”. At a subsequent demo, a speaker referred to the NWBTCW mob in somewhat disparaging terms; I think in part because he was concerned about the movement from involvement in public rallies such as these to more concrete forms of action (such as that undertaken by the ILWU for May Day 2008 — or even that undertaken by the dockworkers of Durban in opposition to Mugabe’s killing machine in April).
So, when I ask what’s a class struggle, believe it or not, I do so not out of total ignorance as to its meaning or significance, but in a failed attempt to satirise your own rather silly discourse regarding anarchism, its “history; class struggle; and trendy identity politics”. Your ignorance has only a tangential relationship to the subject of Bob’s original post on Socialist Alternative and propagandism, but if a link can be made, I think it has to do with the apparent rigidity of your opinions, despite the existence of ample evidence to the contrary.
Finally, your remarks on the meaning of class struggle, like those of Bob on imperialism, raise a whole host of other issues, including but not limited to the notion of class structure, (class) consciousness, culture, theory, social movements, the labour movement, and trade unions. Suffice it to say that I’m not sure I can follow your recommendations on this or any other subject (aside from the most obvious).
Joseph Cross, July 9, 2008 (From Leftwrites) The problem with psychologising people’s political activities is it tends to belittle them. People organising to change the world are not seen as inspiring or as performing an absolutely neccesary task, but as showing some pathology or “ behaviour”. It reminds me of the classic study where someone posed as a mentally ill person, was admitted to an asylum, and from then on acted exactly as they would have normally. The psychiatrists, etc, however viewed all his behavior through the lens of pathology. Hence, when they saw him taking notes this was viewed as “ exhibiting writing behaviour”.
Bemused, July 20, 2008 (From Leftwrites) It’s strangely heartening to see that the reason for my leaving Socialist Alternative and this whole mess of left fragments seven years ago is still well-founded. My experience of Socialist Alternative’s general attitude to discussion that threatened to push beyond its immutable dogma was (and it’s demonstrated in this thread) to shut down that kind of “heretic” discussion by throwing around words like “uncomradely” (does that sound like “un-Australian”?). I feel saddened every time I visit this forum to find my disillusion of all those years ago reinforced.
But a Mick Tour is going way beyond that in terms of the rigidity of who defines what Socialist Alternative stands for. Unfortunately, it’s beliefs are not subject to any degree of democratic access. The reins are tightly held and kept away from lowly rank-and-file, and yet they dare speak to us of democratic movements!
How is the left supposed to achieve anything when there is either no floor time and, on the other hand, when there is a forum for discussion it’s all sectarian BS like this hopelessly long thread that stretches thousands of words longer than any of the discussions on substantive issues on this board? Public scrutiny is hardly what’s required; the whole thing is an embarrassment to all lefties (and I still consider myself a radical one).
Norm Dixon, August 1, 2008 (From Ozleft) Socialist Alternative gets the balance wrong on propaganda and action: From Little Things Big Things Grow: strategies for building revolutionary socialist organisations, by Mick Armstrong, Socialist Alternative, 2007. Reviewed by Ben Courtice.
That Lumpen, August 20, 2008 (From Ozleft) I have friends in Socialist Alternative (several) who have told me that they are not allowed to talk to me when they are either selling their magazine or conducting a stall … at some point someone decided that I was beyond recruitment, and the law thus decreed me a waste of attention that could otherwise be spidering-in new contacts and recruits.
My SA friends still do, albeit somewhat nervously, talk to me when at a stall … if only briefly. But I have noticed their reluctance to do this especially before the gaze of a proximate Mick.
Has Sir Mick deemed that all social relations, when a member has in hand a magazine or is behind a stall, must be reified beneath a use value: the interlocutor’s potential to become a vehicle for the extension of SA membership?
Things become somewhat insidious when the task of building an organisation is not based upon friendships formed in a shared experience of struggle, but rather recruiting for the sake of recruiting. I never joined SA because I believed it important to independently understand the history of labour struggles and movements, such that I could make an informed choice regarding the particular contemporary analyses and approaches of various leftist organisations and ideologies.
Having done this, I will never join SA. I could never fathom how anyone could leap into a revolutionary organisation without such knowledge, which is necessary for any rational decision, for becoming a revolutionary is no small deal.
When an organisation succinctly focuses upon recruiting from, say, predominantly first-year university students who have very little understanding of the diverse approaches historically and presently taken by the left, times must be extraordinarily rough for the left in general, or that organisation must be particularly opportunistic.