DSP and Australian Socialist Alliance
Steve Painter and Rose McCann
spainter at optushome.com.au
Tue Nov 12 20:39:52 MST 2002
Bob Gould responds to Jose Perez, Dave Riley, Ben Courtice, Shane Hopkinson,
Peter Boyle, Alan Bradley, and others
The old saying is, a week is a long time in politics. The eight weeks since
the DSP announced its intention to "dissolve" into the Socialist Alliance
have been a very long time indeed. Marxmail readers might recall that I
wrote a piece exploring the contradictions and problems involved in the DSP'
s proposal back in September, and considerable discussion followed, raising
questions of the united front, labour parties, the labour aristocracy, etc.
Ben Courtice, Nick Fredman, Shane Hopkinson and others over the past few
weeks have all questioned me about my concrete proposals for the united
I posted a response detailing my proposals for the united front, and the
kind of regroupment of the left that I favour. There has been no comment on
that post from anyone who asked for my views.
The discussion on Marxmail has been long and complex, and has parallelled a
discussion here in Australia. The discussion of the DSP's proposal has been
very useful, because it has necessarily forced all those in Australia who
are in any way interested in a socialist unity or regroupment project to
clarify their point of view. Some, like Socialist Alternative and the
Socialist Party, have responded in a self-satisfied way to the effect that
few specific or comprehensive regroupments or public discussions among far
left groups are possible or desirable at this time, and that their outfits
are doing okay anyway.
In my view, that self-satisfaction of small groups is short-sighted and
likely to cause trouble for them in the medium-term.
The most surprising result of the DSP manoeuvre, which was designed among
other things to exacerbate conflicts in the ISO, is that it had the opposite
effect, and forced the several currents in the ISO to come together to
elaborate some of the differences the ISO has with the DSP on a number of
questions, including some that have been prominent in the Marxmail
discussion, particularly the united front and the continuing grip of Labor
reformism in Australia.
In the initial debates on the DSP proposal in the Socialist Alliance, the
sharpest critical note was struck by the Workers League, one of the smaller
groups, but they were soon joined by the ISO, and after some internal
discussion, all of the ISO factions recognised that the proposal was
basically for a rebadged DSP functioning as the major force in the Socialist
Alliance, rather than any actual dissolution of the DSP.
As the reality began to emerge that the DSP proposal was a declaration of
intent to as fast as possible impose a regroupment/fusion type arrangement
on the other Alliance partners, the resistance to the proposal eventually
spread to every other group in the Socialist Alliance.
The hardening of the ISO attitude was obviously influenced by the
international discussion opened at the British SWP conference, which took
the form of the British SWP leadership elaborating a different view of
regroupment to that of the Scottish Socialist Party. The British SWP now
makes a fairly substantial point (and in my view a correct one) about the
continuing grip of labour movement reformism in English-speaking countries,
which is completely different to the DSP/SSP/Phil Ferguson/CWI-Militant view
that reformism is completely exposed and bankrupt in terms of its influence
over the working class.
Two weeks ago, a meeting was held at the Gaelic Club in Sydney to discuss
the DSP proposal. It was attended by about 75 people, about 40 of them DSP
and Resistance members (about half the DSP/Resistance membership, which
underlined the importance with which the DSP viewed the meeting. as this was
prime paper-selling time because of late-night shopping). There were about
15 ISO members (about a third of its membership in Sydney), two Socialist
Alternative members, two Workers Liberty members, four Workers League
members, no Greens, myself and another left ALP person, a couple of real
independents and couple of independents who are really DSP sympathisers, as
well as Sydney "Communist Left" personality Bill Keats.
Lisa McDonald outlined the DSP's proposal in an upbeat way, arguing that no
reasonable person could disagree with a proposal that was so good for the
left. Ian Rintoul from the ISO opposed it cautiously, pointing out the
problems it posed for the ISO because of the element of ultimatum in it, and
that the ISO had a different perception of the regroupment process to the
unilateral, forced process implied in the DSP's proposal.
Janet Bursall, from Workers Liberty at that stage gave the proposal critical
endorsement and Phil Sandford opposed the proposal on similar lines to Ian
Rintoul. The most interesting thing was the character of the discussion. The
10 or so ISO members who spoke expressed a variety of views. While, on
balance, they didn't like the DSP proposal at all, they expressed divergent
views on prospects for the Socialist Alliance, and what came through from
the ISO people was the beginnings, in their ranks, of a more serious
discussion on the tactical questions in dispute between the ISO and the DSP.
I spelled out my proposals for regroupment, different from both the ISO and
DSP and made a couple of jokes about the Marxmail discussion and mentioned
Peter Boyle's crack about having a captive audience on Marxmail, and I said
that was a good thing, which even got a bit of a laugh from some of the DSP
members, as well as from all the others.
The striking thing about the discussion was the implacable uniformity of the
DSP speakers - about 15 of them. They showed no sign of the diversity of
views that was evident among the ISO speakers. The three leaders who spoke:
John Percy, Peter Boyle and Dick Nichols were extremely aggressive and
confident, the argument being how could the ISO or the smaller groups
smaller groups see anything wrong in the DSP's proposal, that nothing would
change, fears about the drive of the DSP for hegemony in the Alliance were
figments of imagination in the heads of the ISO members and others, and how
could anyone doubt the good intentions of the DSP, and anyway they were
going to go ahead with their plan and the other groups would have to live
John Percy baited the ISO members by quoting an Alex Callinicos article
about regroupment, saying the DSP's conception was the same as that of
This proved ironic later, when it became clear that misgivings had emerged
among the British SWP leadership about the trajectory of the regroupment
process in Scotland. These misgivings registered in the ISO discussion here.
Percy's polemical tactic of using his interpretation of Callinicos's view
didn't have much effect, because it emerged later that Callinicos's view is
probably quite different. In any case, it's pretty cocky of John Percy to
claim that he has some special insight into Alex Callinicos's mind.
The 12 DSP rank and filers who spoke all had a uniformly activist, upbeat
style, arguing strenuously that the DSP proposal was the philosopher's stone
to solve all the problems of regroupment and the Socialist Alliance. A woman
from Newcastle let a cat out of the bag when she said if the DSP proposal
went ahead, which it would, the Newcastle branch could bring 160 people to
the Alliance conference next year. The 160, it emerges, is the number of
electoral registrations in the Hunter Valley. But, of course, if the DSP
proposal didn't go ahead the number they would bring down would be far less.
Non-DSP members present at the meeting were obviously wondering which of
this woman's alternative propositions was the more intimidating.
Peter Boyle's contribution was extremely confident, and he clearly spelled
out that the DSP had every intention of proceeding with its plan. Summing up
at the end, Phil Sandford of the Workers League made the powerful point that
what alarmed him most was the mechanical uniformity of the DSP contributions
at the meeting, which underlined for him the strong possibility that the
new-look Alliance would be one in which the rebadged DSP, with its
homogeneous, top-down atmosphere and style, would be dominant.
I got a lift back to Newtown with a couple of ISO and Workers League
comrades, and the slightly amused and amazed conversation in the car was all
about the heroic homogeneity of the DSP contributions.
A couple of days later several recent DSP internal bulletins - the ones
containing the three critical reports by Boyle, Nichols and Percy - leaked
into the public domain of the left, both in Sydney and Melbourne and via
email to other places. These three reports played a critical role in the
subsequent discussion on the far left. In particular, Boyle's report spelled
out in graphic detail, obviously to convince doubters in DSP ranks, that in
any transitional period after the dissolution of the DSP into the Socialist
Alliance, up to the point that they achieved their political objective of
the Alliance being an homogenous organisation with their politics, that the
DS Tendency of the Alliance would be a rebadged DSP, with all the advantages
of the DSP political machine and the useful public face of the Alliance.
These three reports circulated rapidly in interested circles on the left and
the sharp contrast between the public posture of the DSP leadership - that
nothing would change and the Socialist Alliance would remain an alliance -
was in sharp conflict with the thrust of the DSP's internal perspectives,
which were all, as expressed by Boyle, about fighting strenuously to
homogenise the Alliance around DSP politics.
Within a week or so of the circulation of these reports, the ISO as a whole
decided solidly against the DSP proposals, as did all the smaller affiliates
of the Alliance. This stage of the discussion was expressed fairly sharply
in a lucid and comprehensive survey of the issues by Michael Schembri of
Socialist Democracy (the USFI-oriented group in Australia), followed up by
an open letter from John Tully of Socialist Democracy in fairly sharp terms
calling on the DSP to draw back.
The rest is history. One small by product of these developments is that
after Steve and I put the contentious Boyle report up on the Ozleft website,
the DSP seems to have decided to publish the Boyle, Percy and Nichols
reports on the DSP website, which is a very healthy development for serious
discussion of matters of this sort. Reasonably open, rather than internal,
discussion of important questions is one of the issues in dispute between
most other Marxists and the DSP.
At the end of the process, nobody in the Alliance except two or three loyal
ex-members of the DSP, and no one among the Socialist groups outside the
Alliance on the far left, supported the DSP initiative. Everyone on the far
left outside the DSP could see that given the history and character of the
DSP, no one could reasonably expect the new-look Socialist Alliance to be
anything but a formation in which a rebadged DSP would be the dominant
force, fighting for hegemony, both short term and long-term, of all its
tactical perspectives in the DSP style with which everyone on the left in
Australia is familiar.
No significant change in the DSP's top-down, ultra-centralist political
culture, line and way of functioning is apparent to anyone else on the left
in Australia. That's the cold reality of the situation.
>From this point of view, I find the recent contribution of Jose Perez on
this question a bit difficult to understand.
It's pretty clear from Boyle's report that the DSP proposal - withdrawn for
the moment - was for a rebadged DSP with all its Cannonist organisational
characteristics. For instance, it may that there are disagreements within
the DSP Political Committee, and have been for a while. There are some
suggestions of such disagreement to an educated eye like mine.
If there weren't such disagreement before, there may well be now, after the
shipwreck of the DSP leadership's initiative, on which they were so
implacably set even two weeks ago.
But whatever these disagreements in the leadership may be, the DSP
membership won't be told about them until they've been resolved inside the
In parties like the DSP, with the Cannonist tradition that it inherited from
the Zinovievist Comintern, internal political disagreements in the
leadership are never aired with the membership unless one of the leaders is
prepared to start a war for internal hegemony by forming a faction. And
almost inevitably the forming of factions in a Cannonist organisation leads
to a split. It certainly has every time there has been a faction in the DSP.
For this reason there is powerful pressure in the DSP leadership and
membership against the formation of factions and tendencies. It's this
structural set-up and psychological atmosphere in the DSP that makes other
groups on the far left, including the ISO and Socialist Alternative - which
have a more relaxed Leninism that allows public factions - fearful of the
Jose Perez seems so infatuated with the DSP, from a distance, that he
regards the attitude of all the other groups and individuals that don't want
to be gobbled up by the DSP carnivorous plant, as examples of sectarianism.
But that's not how it looks to the smaller left-wing political animals being
eyed off by the DSP in Australia. They don't want to be subsumed by the DSP.
They point to the many unresolved strategic and political questions between
them and the DSP and they say a too-rapid regroupment without a serious
discussion of these disagreements, with the aim of some resolution, or at
least some increase in clarity on them, would be a recipe for almost
immediate disaster, and would put socialist unity off the agenda for quite a
long time. That is particularly the theme of John Tully and Socialist
Democracy in their open letter to the DSP.
The ISO's letter to the DSP points to a number of important differences, in
particular the divergent strategic orientation of the two groups to the
Australian labour movement, and they assert forcefully that no organic
regroupment with the DSP is possible until such strategic questions are
Jose Perez's letter from afar on these matters puzzles me, because it seems
to skate lightly over the ultra-Cannonist intent of Boyle's report, and
implicitly chides all the other groups for sectarianism for not rolling over
in the face of the DSP's intentions. Why should they roll over? Perez
underestimates the considerable impact of Boyle's report on all the other
groups and individuals in the Australian far left.
The net result of all this has been to open a wide-ranging political
discussion on the far left in Australia on all questions relating to what
kind of Marxist organisation is required. The DSP is the only group
defending an ultra-Cannonist model. One interesting by-product of these
developments is the way this series of events has tended to calm down the
internal discussion inside the ISO, which is coming up to its national
conference. The tone of the arguments in the ISO's internal bulletin has
become reasonably relaxed, despite the sharp political differences between
some of the participants, and everyone in the ISO seems to have settled down
to regarding the relatively wide-ranging discussion, spearheaded by
individuals who are mostly in the leadership of the organisation, as normal.
Surely, from Perez's point of view, in relation to Cannonism, it's clear
that the political climate in the ISO is far healthier than the still very
homogeneous environment of the DSP? It will be very interesting to see if
the shipwreck of the DSP's organisational proposals for the Socialist
Alliance brings to the surface the oppositional rumblings that clearly exist
in the DSP on a number of questions.
The bloke from Melbourne, whose amendment to hasten slowly about the
dissolution proposal got no votes except his own at the recent DSP National
Committee meeting, has obviously been proved right by events, and it will be
interesting to see what happens in the DSP now.
>From my point of view, the whole history of these events poses sharply the
kind of perspective for regroupment of the socialist left that I have been
advocating for some years. In particular, it's hard to see how any of the
groups can resist the call for a serious, relaxed and reasonably lengthy
discussion throughout the far left of the strategic questions in the labour
movement that have formed the subject of some of the recent debates on
SOME QUESTIONS FOR JOSE PEREZ, LOUIS PROYECT, RICHARD FIDLER AND OTHER NORTH
A few weeks ago, Steve and I encountered the regroupment proposals of the
important US Marxist organisation, Solidarity, which seemed sane, so we put
them up on the Ozleft
Three comrades from the controversial US ISO have visited Australia in
recent months and have uniformly made such a good impression here that just
about everyone on the far left spent some time trying to make friends with
When Caroline Lund was here at Easter she made some sweepingly dismissive
statements about the current state of the US labour movement, which have
been further developed in a lengthy article by her, Malik Miah and Barry
Sheppard in the latest issue of Links.
The DSP's proposals for the Socialist Alliance have produced a long and
detailed overview of the Australian left on Marxmail, which in my view has
been extremely useful.
For the information of comrades in Australia, could Jose, Louis or someone
else give us a serious overview of the Marxist organisations in the US,
their size and influence and their perspectives and politics, including an
appraisal of proposals for regroupment, and some views and perspectives in
relation to those organisations?
Could Richard Fidler do the same for the far left in Canada?
This is a genuine, not a loaded, question. I'm looking more for information
rather than ammunition to justify some extravagant, and if one was to write
it, necessarily eccentric, letter from afar on tasks for the left in North
PLEASE clip all extraneous text before replying to a message.
More information about the Marxism