Fire ants

Steve Painter and Rose McCann spainter at
Thu Nov 21 05:52:07 MST 2002

Bob Gould comments on the discussion between Louis Proyect, Richard Fidler
and others, seating arrangements and the evolution of James Cannon's
organisational ideas

Phil Ferguson chides me for being, by his standards, overly provocative, and
says that I'm in danger of being seen as a spoiler because of my fairly
carefully expressed perspectives on the regroupment of revolutionary
socialists in Australia. I can't do a lot about that problem, because my
proposals speak for themselves.

The fairly substantial argument and debate on all these questions on
Marxmail tends to make most organisational and political propositions stand
on their own feet. What does awe me a bit is the explosive impact of odd
observations I've made or questions I've asked on Marxmail. I asked a
genuine and straightforward question for my own information and for that of
associated Australian comrades, about the US left.

I'm mightily impressed by the avalanche of information and discussion that
question triggered off, and I found the resultant discussion about the US
left absorbing and useful. If I lived in the US there's little doubt in my
mind that I would join Solidarity, pronto, as a critical but committed
member. That's the direction in which my personal interests lie.

I stand by my ants and bees analogy. It has a humorous aspect, obviously,
but it's of some use in standing a bit back from the battle of the factions,
to look at the political process in which many of us have been involved for
most of our adult lives, from a slightly critical standpoint. My throwaway
observation about the seating and delegate arrangements at a DSP
decision-making conference has also  triggered off some discussion.

As I said initially, there was possibly some justification for the delegates
being at the front of the hall, but I didn't really spell out, in enough
detail, what made me uneasy. It wasn't just the seating arrangements, it was
the total context. It seems to me that the way the thing was designed was to
give exaggerated weight to the appearance of a democratic process in the
DSP, when what was really at work was an intensely hierarchical, top-down

The scene was that big hall on the old Hawkesbury Agricultural College site,
which has been the scene of DSP national meetings for about 25 years. It's
always as hot as hell in Sydney in December-January and it's always hotter
at Hawkesbury than anywhere in Sydney at that time of year, and the hall is
not air-conditioned. About 300 people can be jammed into the hall, and often
are. The form of the major presentations in the hall is almost always the
same. The presenter speaks for well over an hour and there's about
three-quarters of an hour's discussion from the floor on non-decision-making

During such presentations, everyone sits in rows with a fair number on the
floor, looking to the front, with the soft-drink fridge and snack bar doing
a roaring trade at the back of the room.

For the decision-making sessions, the seating is rearranged, and the
delegates are seated in two blocks at the front, side-on to the presidium
and facing each other. It's a neat arrangement, but in my experience it
accentuates very sharply the notion of the delegates and the presidium as
the leadership. The same practical result could be achieved by simply
leaving the seats in the other configuration, with the delegates sitting at
the front, with a delegate's credential.

Fifty or so delegates highlighted at the front in a very special way in a
packed room with 250 observers tends to sharpen the difference between the
observers and the delegates, which is obviously the effect intended by these
arrangements. This basic arrangement hasn't varied in the decision-making
sections of the DSP conference for 25 years or so.

Obviously, the seating arrangements are a relatively trivial and secondary
question. What really concerned me  was the virulent, belligerent, unanimity
behind extremely problematic strategic details on which there had quite
obviously been some previous conflict within the organisation, and even
probably within its leadership.

As I've said in other posts, the statement by the overconfident, mildly
charismatic student organiser, obviously replying to some disagreement
somewhere, (the somewhere not being obvious to the naked eye), that the
Resistance intervention at the National Union of Students conference was the
"perfect intervention". He explained at length why it had been necessary for
the DSP faction to split with everyone else on the left because they were
compromising with the Laborites, a point of principle with the DSP, etc,
etc. (It will be interesting to see what the DSP does at this year's NUS
conference in a couple of weeks. At this stage, most section of the far
left, the two sections of the Labor left and most sections of the Broad Left
have come together in a common caucus for this conference. It will be
interesting to see what attitude the DSP adopts to this fairly important

This DSP student' leader's notion of the possibility of a perfect
intervention by anyone, anywhere, amused me, as an old agitator. The
prolonged applause and the fierce unanimity behind this highly contentious
report seemed to me to underline the overly homogeneous, top-down,
"team-leadership"-dominated formation into which the DSP has crystallised.

A similar energetic and homogeneous unanimity behind Sue Bull's rambling and
equally contentious trade union report had a like effect on me.

Obviously, the seating arrangements aren't the critical issue. I only
mentioned them as a kind of shorthand for people on the left who have some
familiarity with these questions, and I should have expressed myself in
greater detail. Nevertheless, the discussion of these questions on Marxmail
has been interesting.

The most important thing I seem to have triggered off is the useful and
informative exchange between Richard Fidler and Louis Proyect, which
involves issues of organisation in Marxist groups, that are certainly not
resolved between the large number of Trotskyist, ex-Trotskyist and
semi-Trotskyist groups and individuals on the planet, and are not entirely
resolved for myself, after considerable experience and reading. On balance,
I still favour, a liberally interpreted notion of Leninist organisation,
based loosely on the better features of the practice of the Bolshevik Party,
although not slavishly so.

Fidler's reprint of Cannon's 1945 organisational ideas is important, but on
balance, I favour Louis' interpretation of the events. In particular, it
seems to me, that Cannon's 1945 conception, which tried to resolve the
problem of a leadership divided into permanent factions, tended to produce a
cure worse than the disease.

Many of the splits in the Trotskyist movement in different countries, and
the subsequent emergence of new political fire-ant colonies with slight
mutations, have been deliberately precipitated by leaderships, or even
people who wished to be leaderships, of homogeneous organisations built
around themselves.

There is little doubt, really, that Cannon deliberately precipitated the
split with the Cochranites. As Louis Proyect keeps pointing out, the outcome
could have been different. Cannon obviously had the best of intentions, in
trying to preserve the homogeneity of the organisation. In retrospect, that
kind of organisational conception has had very damaging consequences, both
in breaking up groupings with a lively and creative agitational and
political life, and constructing what are essentially new organisations of
an intensely internally rigid and uniform type, eventually producing outfits
with characteristics that are often the opposite to those required for
effective socialist leadership and agitation.

The quest for homogeneity, expressed in an exaggerated organisational way,
gives rise to sects, and that is what, in my view, many of the organisations
have essentially become, which is unfortunate. This is one of the reasons
why I conduct my agitation for a somewhat different model of regroupment and
internal set-up in Marxist groups.

A very good summary of a lot of these issues in relation to models of
Marxist organisation, is a small pamphlet by Mick Armstrong, Sandra
Bloodworth and Marc Newman of Socialist Alternative, called Lenin and the
Party: Debunking the Myths.

It's worth noting that Cannon's 1945 notions of organisation gave rise to a
process in the SWP that became, in the event, irreversible. To deal with the
Spartacists and Wohlforth, the SWP was tightened up in the famous resolution
1965 Resolution, in such a way as to make factions nearly impossible. A
little later, even Cannon revolted against this process, when it was used
against his old associate Arne Swabeck, who had veered in the direction of
Maoism. He wrote one of his last polemical pieces, "Don't Strangle the
Party" on this.

In that respect, the human drama of Jim Cannon is similar to the human
drama, on a vastly more massive scale, involved in Lenin's attack on Stalin,
and Lenin's suppressed testament. At the end of his life Lenin was becoming
acutely aware of the complex, inter-related forces at work, in the party and
the country, speeding up bureaucratic degeneration, and he was fighting hard
to develop ideas and political structures to deal with those problems, when
his life was so tragically cut short by illness.

One of the great historical speculations is what the history of the 20th
century might have looked like had Lenin been well enough to be politically
active for another 10 years or so.

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