DSP and Socialist Alliance

Shane Hopkinson s.hopkinson at cqu.edu.au
Mon Sep 9 06:01:07 MDT 2002


> Date: Fri, 6 Sep 2002 14:31:03 +1000
> From: Bob Gould (via Steve Painter and Rose McCann)

> I am forwarding a response by Bob Gould, long-time Marxist in
> Sydney, to the DSP's proposal concerning the Socialist Alliance.

Great to see Bob's comments. It should be noted as I said before Bob
is an old sparring partner of the Percy brothers and so his comments
need to be seen in that perspective. He maintains here one of the
other things that I think needs to change if the Left is to grow, and
that's the polemical style which has characterised far Left debates.

Bob has his own style and that's not gonna change, but on email it can
be doubly misleading. I have posted his stuff before on the list as a
focal point for discussion.  Now the debate Bob has been calling for
has (finally) begun, let's try and make it constructive. He raises two
important questions- why now and why the haste?

> Is this ultra-Cannonist leopard really about to change its spots,
> and with such speed?

We still have some way to go on this but the leopard's spots have been
changing for some time. As evidence for this, I would cite our
critique of Comintermism, and the abandonment of a strict party line
newspaper. Surely its a bit too cynical to suggest its all just a
sectarian manoevre -the current proposal could also count as evidence
that we are not the Cannonist sect others claim we are.  What would
count as evidence if not that?

> It was announced by Dick Nichols to other convenors of the Socialist
> Alliance about 10 days ago. Dick said it hadn't even been discussed
> by the DSP National Executive, and that it was an initiative of the
> Political Committee (the DSP has three levels of national leadership
> - the National Committee, a smaller National Executive and the
> day-to-day decision-making body, the Political Committee). Dick said
> he was confident other DSP bodies would endorse the proposal, and no
> doubt it will be endorsed almost unanimously.

The difficulty with this is simply that its one-sided. Obviously a
move as big as this needs to be discussed within the party.  Once it
was a matter for wide discussion it was only a matter of time before
it became public. So the PC discussed it and then circulated the
proposal to the branch leaderships for comment.  On the whole the
feedback was, I gather, overwhelming positive (as is evidenced by the
generally positive response of others on this list).  I discussed it
with the branch here and we thought it was great so long as it wasn't
seen as a manoevre by the other members of the Alliance. It has now
been endorsed by the NC and is now a topic of debate within the party.
Obviously such a step requires a thorough debate in the party first,
in the interests of democracy.

> Everything in the DSP comes from the top down, based on the
> caricature the DSP leaders have in their heads about how Lenin and
> the Bolsheviks used to operate. The DSP hasn't changed in that
> respect.

This is too simplistic- if that was the model we were using, we
wouldn't be dissolving into SA.

> In discussion with John Percy about this proposal, I asked if
> discussion would be opened up on all tactical questions within the
> labour movement.  He replied that the discussion would have to take
> place about how to build the Socialist Alliance outside, and in
> opposition to the Labor Party (and by inference the Greens). All
> serious tactical discussions realistically located in the actuality
> of the labour movement in Australia at this time are, by John
> Percy's definition, excluded from this.

There needs to be a serious debate in the left and that's what the
Socialist Alliance will be a vehicle for if all goes well.  In the
meantime the debate begins internally (I see no reason why it won't be
adopted). Obviously the next key step is the May Conference of SA when
they will debate about the future course of the SA, which is at
present immobile.  The SA is about building an altenative to the ALP
and Bob is opposed to that, but the discussion for the present is
about those who want to work outside the ALP and I guess those in the
ALP who will work with those outside.

We could I guess wait till the May conference but that would mean we
are asking them to approve our course of action without any attempt on
our part to establish any credibility. . Instead we are saying let's
have 4 months internal discussion (and by necessity this will be
public QED) and then 4 months of co-operative work - let's have a look
how it might work by opening the editorial board of the paper to other
tendencies and show we are serious leading up to the conference,
establish this in practice and then SA can debate.  Its not clear
exactly what course Bob is proposing in terms of time.

> The reality of the situation is that the DSP has about 350 members,
> the ISO <snip> The 2000 members claimed by DSP leaders for the
> Socialist Alliance nationally, outside the members of groups, are
> almost entirely names collected, in a quite impressive effort to get
> the allianceregistered under state and federal electoral laws.  The
> notion that most of them represent very great potential for
> political activism, is a DSP leadership triumph of hope over
> experience.

Perhaps we are overestimating its potential but we don't know that -
we are trying to follow up our "impressive effort" with some
revolutionary optimism.

> Why has the DSP leadership made its proposal at this time?  First of
> all, it's a manoeuvre against the ISO in the spirit of Cannon <snip>

All this amounts to the claim that we are Cannonist.  The idea of
dissolving into the Alliance is a good one (I suspect Bob thinks so
too he's just sus about the timing and motives).  As Jose said in the
July debate there are no objective reasons why the far left could not
all be in one party.  In this context the debates we need to have
could be had out without defending "our" party.

> The DSP leadership's attitude toward "obstacle" organisations may
> have changed, but most political players would like to see practical
> evidence of such change, more than just assertions that they have
> changed.

Agreed we have got some convincing to do and some work to do ourselves
but what kind of 'practical evidence' could there be - if dissolving
and opening the editorial board does not count for something.

> The DSP leadership has a public and a private attitude towards the
> ISO, and indeed towards all the other groups in the Socialist
> Alliance. The public attitude is unity, but in internal discussion
> in the DSP, particularly concerning the ISO, there is constant
> detail and up-to-date commentary on the very real crisis in the ISO,
> expressed in a triumphalist, hostile way, as towards an opponent
> organisation. In the student movement and the refugee movement,
> where the DSP and ISO meet, these attitudes mix. There are
> occasional protestations of unity, combined with frequent turf wars.

Firstly the tone of 'internal' discussions is of course a subjective
assessment and not intended for public consumption since the reader
does not necessarily share the same premises.  I think the attitude of
DSP/ISO members has been one of rivalry and so there are strong
feelings on both sides, so to see ISO struggling is not going to be
met with sympathy, nor would it be if the shoe was on the other foot.
Personally I think it is tragic for people to put large parts of their
lives into an organisation and see it collapse - most will leave Left
politics, so we will in a sense be worse off for the loss of
activists.  I am sure some comrades feel a sense of satisfaction at
the ISO problems, but the political assessment is another matter. It
seems crazy to suggest that dissolving the DSP is a tactic to take
advantage of the ISO who have troubles aplenty without us needing some
tactic to help it along.

> The DSP is seizing the moment in relation to the ISO, and the
> question arises whether they may have received some sort of nod from
> Callinicos, as part of the British SWP leadership's rearrangement of
> the chessmen on the global board of regroupment. That aspect is
> unclear at this time.

I hope this is not true.  Imagine the ISO being instructed by London
to dissolve into the Alliance I can't imagine anything more
demoralising - I thinks its a bit of conspiracy mongering.

> A second reason for this proposal at this time is a realistic
> assessment by the DSP leadership that the electoral aspect of the
> Socialist Alliance is dead in the water. John Percy's written
> proposal explicitly notes the limited electoral prospects of the
> alliance, in an indirect and discreet way.

Interestingly, Bob has been telling us this for months and now that we
agree with him, it's further evidence of our bad faith or undue haste,
not of the need to make a decision about what relationship to develop
with SA- either minimise our committment or throw our weight behind
it.

> A third reason for moving now with such extraordinary haste, is the
> crisis point that has been reached in the DSP's semi-delusional perspective
> that there's some kind of mass leftist trade union break from the Labor
> Party, developing rapidly in Melbourne and to a lesser extent in Western
> Australia.

I'm not sure where he gets this reading of our positions.  There are
exciting developments in Victorian trade unions and we have been
finding ways to work with the militant leadership of AMWU.  I haven't
heard any talk about a "mass break" from the unions.  There is a
serious fight in Victoria and some discontent but hardly more than
that at present.

> My personal sympathies lie with Workers First in its attempt to
> defeat the assault by the federal leadership machine,

but...

> It would be interesting to know what advice was given to the Workers
> First grouping about tactics by the industrial "experts" of the DSP,
> because tactics in situations like this are of considerable
> importance to the survival of any serious trade union formation. The
> "expose Labor" rhetoric of the DSP is no asset to Workers First in
> this situation.

I would hope we didn't approach them as 'experts' but as supporters. I
am sure Johnson has a much better feel for these things than we do
with our levels of experience.

The vexed issue of the labour party is one that needs to be
debated. It is precisely in concrete struggle that any limitations of
our perspective becomes clearer. The nature of the Labour party is
something not all members of the SA agree on (and its a long standing
historical one too of course) but more concretely a simplistic
position like "expose labourism" will be shown to be adequate or not
in practice.

> The other two axes of the very real militant industrial development
> in Melbourne, to which the DSP gives its delusional
> break-from-Laborism slant are the CFMEU (construction, forestry,
> mining and energy union) led by Martin Kingham and the textile and
> clothing union led by Michelle O'Neill.

I haven't heard this.

> Martin Kingham and Michelle O'Neill are two left delegates among the
> 47 from Victoria who will attend this critical federal
> conference. The only wisdom the DSP can offer these militant
> delegates from Victoria is to leave the Labor Party and join the
> Socialist Alliance, which advice Kingham and O' Neill have so far
> wisely ignored.

As you would expect, since we are not in a position to 'advise'
them. What we can be sure about though is that the result of the Labor
Party conference in relation to rebuilding a class struggle left wing
will be negligible.  I confess that I have little knowledge of the
mechanics of this conference but the best will be a win for 60/40 -
that is, the status quo will be unaltered - except the socialist left
will have spent enormous energy fighting its own parliamentary wing in
order to keep unions in there.  Whether it would be better spent on an
alternative is a matter for their judgement - and as revolutionaries I
think we need to convince them of that, but I agree denunciations from
the sidelines won't do it.

> Internally, in the DSP, the leadership refers to Michelle O'Neill as
> a very cynical Labor Party member, but in public they quite rightly
> praise her as a courageous militant unionist. She is clearly not as
> cynical about the ALP as the DSP leadership say in private.

I don't know we know that there are union militants unhappy with the
Labor Party but I have heard little canvassed about views of
individuals. My knowledge of Michelle O is of her on the s11 video we
made which features her, with Bob Brown and other Victorian Trades
Hall Council labourites portrayed quite positively.

>  It will be a very interesting Labor Party federal conference.

Perhaps I might learn something, but I would be interested in hearing
how the results of the conference would move the socialist movement
forward, which is our present task.

> The relevance of these developments in Victoria is that they expose
> the unreality of DSP leadership's rhetoric about the militancy in
> Victoria representing a fundamental and final break from the Labor
> Party.

I have never heard this - it would be a fantasy to think that. We have
portrayed the discontent of individuals in the paper as much as
possible and tried to expose the fact that there is discontent within
the ranks of Labor but a 'final break' I don't know where he gets this
idea.  The ETU made a gesture at the Greens, in all probability
Camer0n looks like he will win the battle (hopefully not the war) for
control, so I don't think even a single break is likely, let alone a
final one.

> For most militants involved in this leftward-moving current, insofar
> as they consider political alliances, there's a very strong pull on
> them to intervene in the Labor Party to defend their basic trade
> union interests, and the DSP's sectarian "destroy the ALP"
> perspective cuts right across those necessities.

I agree that this slogan is simplistic, but while union militants see
the ALP as 'defending their interests' except in a narrow pragmatic
sense then that's the problem isn't it? Same applies to the electorate
as a whole- the issue is how to break the hold and to do that is gonna
need a lot of dicussion.

> In even a month from now, it will be increasingly difficult for the
> DSP to continue with its delusional break-from-Laborism rhetoric,
> and from the point of view of the DSP leaders it is obviously better
> to move now, rather than later, when their over-riding "expose
> Laborism" perspective will be in even worse shape.

If we were to persist with this slogan then we could just say the ALP
re-asserted its control over the unions by doing the militants over -
so I don't see that this would be a cause for haste.

> When the Socialist Alliance was formed 18 months ago, I started a
> document war with the DSP in an attempt to provoke discussion on
> strategy and perspectives in the workers movement. Despite my
> well-known energy in distributing material, I struck a stony wall of
> hostility and professed lack of interest from the DSP leadership on
> these questions.

The DSP leadership has many tasks - now I think assuming that we go
ahead with the plan then we can have the debate that Bob has been
calling for within SA.  There will be a lot of changes and I dare say
that much of what Bob has written will be mulled over by the
participants.

> I proposed an alliance, with two strands: one being with groups
> outside the Labor Party and the Greens, and the second strand
> involving people in the ALP and the Greens, and a public discussion
> focussed around strategic questions in the workers movement.

As far as I see the SA will have to debate the question of the ALP and
the Greens.  Assuming it wants to be more than electoral, then its
clear that the Greens will take the protest vote.  As soon as we open
the editorial board to other tendencies then "strategic questions"
will be the order of the day.  I think a lot of the hostility Bob gets
from the DSP leadership has more to do with their respective histories
and Bob's membership of the ALP than anything else.

> I wish the DSP, ISO and the smaller groups well in the alliance
> project as they attempt to sort out their mutual relations, but I
> have a strong feeling that this discussion may well become a little
> stormy, as the DSP leadership elaborates in more detail the kind of
> organisational and political arrangements they envisage for the new
> formation.

Indeed

> I propose to the DSP, ISO and the smaller groups that as an
> extension of their internal discussion they also hold discussions on
> broader labour movement perspectives, union affiliation to the Labor
> Party, the united front tactic, the 60:40 rule and other matters
> that the DSP leadership has so far avoided discussing in a serious
> way.

I think that these discussions are necessary though at present they
belong in SA.  I'm not sure how the other groups will react to this
proposal (not at all I guess since Bob is not a member)

> That sort of discussion is dictated by "life itself" -- the useful
> phrase that the old Stalinists used to misuse. It is quite obvious,
> for example, that such a discussion would be of burning interest to
> the leftward-moving trade union militants in Victoria, to whom the
> DSP leadership so frequently points with little comprehension or
> understanding of the variety of situations, complexities and
> circumstances in which these trade unionists inevitably have to
> operate.

It is outside our collective experience as a party to understand these
complexitieis which is why we are working with them.  What would the
advice of the Labor Party leadership be?

I have endeavoured to raise issues of process.  I think that the DSP
needs to have its own internal discussion. I don't think we are moving
with unseemly haste but are trying to be contructive and give the SA a
chance to be a genuine pole of attraction (thus far no-one in the DSP
is talking about SA as party- it's too early even if it's what we
hope.)

The problems in the ISO complicate matters but it's best they know our
intentions leading up to their conference, where they will decide for
themselves what they need to do to help build the revolutionary left.
None of this should be taken to mean that I don't think Bob has valid
points to make - indeed I have learned a great deal about labour
history from his writing and would seek to encourage debate in SA more
or less along the lines he advocates.

Cheers

Shane



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