DSP and Socialist Alliance

Steve Painter and Rose McCann spainter at optushome.com.au
Wed Sep 11 00:43:18 MDT 2002

A further comment from Bob Gould on the DSP's Socialist Alliance unity
proposal taking account of contributions by Jose Perez, Shane Hopkinson,
Peter Boyle, Alan Bradley and Dick Nichols (posted by Ben Courtice).

John Percy in yesterday's Green Left Weekly (September 10 says "in just a
year and a half the Socialist Alliance has managed to establish itself as
the 'face of  socialist unity' in Australian politics." It's not clear who
he's quoting. Maybe himself?

He goes on to say "the Socialist Alliance has to one degree or another drawn
around itself a large part of those who view themselves as socialists and
left-wingers in Australia". This second statement is self-delusion of a very
high order. Australia is a highly urbanised country with 19.5 million
people. There are nearly three million people in trade unions. There are
around 2000 people who are either full-time union officials or work
full-time for unions. There are somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 trade
union job delegates or lay committee members. There are probably between
5000 and 10,000 leftist students spread over nearly 100 campuses. There are
about 400 Labor politicians, state and federal, who on average would have
four or five staffers, making about 2500 people occupationally located in
the political wing of the Labor Party. There are between 30,000 and 40,000
members of the Labor Party across Australia. There are more than 5000
members of the Green Party across Australia. There are 15 Greens
politicians, and these Greens politicians would have on average five
staffers each, making about 100 full-timers in the Greens political
apparatus. If you add together the ALP members, ALP politicians and staff,
active trade unionists, left-wing students and the 5000 people in the Greens
structure, you get a total of 70,000 or 80,000 people. At least 20,000 of
them, and probably more, would have to be reasonably classified as
identifying themselves as socialists and left-wingers.

If the 2000 Socialist Alliance adherents that John claims are a large part
of the socialist left in Australia we'd be in a sad state indeed. But
happily the real world of the Australian workers movement is different to
John Percy's self-serving version of it.

In his address to the ISO's Marxism conference, Dick Nichols says: "Firstly,
let's construct a real, serious debate on the entire left, and not just
among Socialist Alliance affiliate organisations and members. Green Left
Weekly will open its pages to this debate. We will propose to carry it on
the Socialist Alliance website. We would also hope that Socialist
Alternative, the Socialist Party and the CPA engage in the debate."
By definition, Nichols excludes from the debate the 20,000 or 30,000
socialists, left-wingers and trade union activists on the left, in the orbit
of Laborism, and the 5000 or so active in the orbit of the Greens. He should
consider this fact: nationally about 4000 people attended the ALP members'
meetings reviewing the defeat in the last federal elections. Between 30 and
50 people spoke at each of these 40 or so meetings and the overwhelming
sentiment of these speakers was leftist or critical, and most of them got
applause at these meetings across Australia.

The Percy-Nichols conception of what constitutes the socialist left in
Australia is absurdly narrow and self-serving.

What is really required is a discussion involving, both the smallish
proportion of the left in the Marxist groups, and the much bigger proportion
who are in the orbit of Laborism and Greenism.

GLW would be a very useful arena for such a discussion if it would conduct
such a discussion, but so far it has resolutely avoided including in this
discussion, the much bigger number of socialists and left-wingers in the
Labor and Green orbits.

The DSP leadership should try to develop some sense of proportion in these
matters, rather than attempting to create a verbal version of reality in
which they are at the centre.

I am passionately in favour of a left unity that involves the maximum number
of those people on the socialist left. I'm also passionately in favour of
sensible, civilised public discussion of many of the unresolved political
and strategic positions on the left.

The problem with the approach of the DSP leadership, to the obvious need for
unity, is that it presents a constant ultimatum to socialists and
left-wingers in the orbit of Laborism and the Greens, that they should
renounce their organisational allegiance and involvement in the structures,
to which many of them have devoted large parts of their lives, and join the
structures of the Socialist Alliance.

These ultimatums are absurd and counter-productive. Alan Bradley in his 100
per cent party-loyal ex-member's role, as a kind of yapping sheepdog for the
DSP leadership, betrays a certain underlying Stalinism by classifying me as
a "paleo-Trot" (a rather fascinating mental image) at the same time as he
creates the other entertaining mental image of the use of sticks of dynamite
to remove me from the ALP.

In his clownish way, comrade Bradley has stumbled upon one of the facts of
political life in the Labor movement in Australia. Along with the people who
are disillusioned with the Laborites and one or another right-wing policy or
betrayal, there are many thousands in the trade union movement and the Labor
Party who are vigorously opposed to the policy of the conservative leaders
of the workers' organisations, but who are tied to these organisations, by
all kinds of practical considerations, and in lifelong associations.

It will take a bit more than Alan Bradley's odd stick of gelignite to
seriously interfere with these sociological realities, as Trotsky and Lenin
used to point out very sharply to people like Bradley and the DSP leaders,
in the 1920 and the 1930s.

A serious socialist unity project, and public discussion in current
Australian conditions, must be framed in such a way as to involve, both the
minority who've broken from the orbit of Labor and the Greens, and the
majority of Labor and Green members who are still in those orbits.

That brings us to the question of Cannonism.

Jose Perez reasonably says that the proposal of the DSP leaders deserves to
be taken at its face value. The problem is, viewed from Australia, that many
people are not prepared, on the basis of their experience with the DSP, to
take such a charitable view initially.

For instance, yesterday the ISO national executive, incorporating the three
recognisable groupings in the ISO, unanimously rejected the DSP proposal for
the time being, and it seems to me that the ISO's rejection is likely to be
based on the ISO's experiences, even in very recent times, with the DSP.

The ISO and the DSP are both significantly present, for instance, in the
left wing of the student movement. The ISO in the student movement operates
on a vague notion of a united front strategy that includes the left-wing
Laborites in the National Organisation of Labor Students (NOLS), who are the
dominant force in the Australian Union of Students. The DSP, on the other
hand, takes as its central focus in the student movement, the constant
exposure and attack on the forces in NOLS as "treacherous adherents of the
rotten Labor Party -- one of the two capitalist parties that dominate
Australian society", according to the DSP.

The DSP internally is cocky and triumphalist in its pursuit of this exposure
strategy towards the Labor students. They constantly attack the ISO and the
Broad Left for making any blocs or accommodations with the Labor students.

The comrade who is currently the DSP's national student organiser outlines
all this in enormous detail in her recent report to the National Committee
of the DSP.

One revealing incident that she describes rather smugly is how at a recent
student conference the DSP joined with Socialist Alternative to create chaos
and raise hell and thereby disrupt the attempt of the ISO to reach some
accommodation with the Laborites.

In this context, it's easy to understand why the ISO students of all
factions seem obviously reluctant to join a common Socialist Alliance
student caucus with the DSP, despite the bland proclamation from Dick
Nichols that the decisions of such caucuses need not be binding.

The problem with the DSP bearing gifts, is that people active in the same
spheres as the DSP, often don't believe them, on the basis of relatively
recent experiences with them.

This all get us to the question of "Cannonism" and "Leninism". Personally,
despite current fashions, I regard Lenin, properly understood, as by far the
greatest revolutionary politician of any epoch. For me, Lenin is the great

The so-called "Leninism", invented after his death is quite a different
proposition, and a poisonous one.
The same applies to James P. Cannon, who awaits a major, serious biographer,
like Peter Drucker for Max Schactman. From my perspective, anyone who
doesn't know Cannon's work, and thinks they're a Marxist, is a bit dopey. I
introduced Jim and John Percy to the works of Cannon, and I'd do it again.
Cannon was a good deal more than just the "Cannonism" that he partly
invented himself, and that was taken to an absurd degree by the US SWP in
the period of its degeneration which happened to be the period when the
Percys latched on to Cannonism as a steadily narrowing and rigidifying
organisational formula. As the poet might have said: "who knows Cannon or
Lenin who only Cannon or Lenin knows".

Cannon was a wonderful proletarian agitator, and one should read his
pamphlet on Debbs and his nostalgia for the Debbsian all-in socialist party
and his pamphlet on the IWW, as part of any balance-sheet on Cannon. One
should also study his enormous understanding of and animosity to Stalinism
in the First 10 Year of American Communism.

The real Cannon is a good deal broader and more complex than the "Cannonism"
and "Leninism" of the DSP. When the DSP deliberately ditched what it called
"Trotskyism" in 1984 it rejected, in part the Trotskyist hostility to the
politics of Stalinism, and the "Trotskyist" preoccupation with such things
as the sociology of real workers movements, but it MAINTAINED, DEEPENED AND
EXTENDED the crudified "Cannonist" conception of the party, as a thing in
itself, to some extent outside and in opposition to the workers movement,
and it has operated on that organisational basis ever since.

The problem with this new DSP unity initiative, is that few people outside
their own ranks, can see any real evidence that their small machine has
changed, in these major organisational aspects.

These problems are exacerbated by the exotic political culture of the DSP.
Having said that no halfway educated Marxist can afford to ignore Cannon or
Lenin, the problem with the DSP, is that in terms of the history of the
workers movement, pretty well all that the rather homogeneous membership of
the DSP gets, in terms of party education, is an intense diet of Cannon and

The rich and complex, and contradictory history of the Australian workers
movement, is substantially ignored, which gives the DSP's collective view of
the world, an eccentrically exotic character.

If Peter Boyle, who presents such a genial and smiling face to the world
most of the time, thinks I'm being too tough on the DSP, he should consider
this fact: six or eight months ago, when the cautious internal opposition
inside the DSP raised its first criticisms, he rounded on them rather
vigorously -- with bell, book and candle, so to speak -- holding up before
their eyes the awful consequences that would flow, by implication, for them,
if they persisted in their questioning of the DSP's political culture.

Marxist politics is a complex business, and this debate about socialist
unity has only just begun. I address myself on these questions, to the
members of the DSP, the ISO and the other Marxist groups, because, despite
the fact that they aren't the overwhelming majority of the socialist left
that John Percy eccentrically claims, nevertheless they are among the more
important and serious elements on the socialist left, and it's hard to
envisage the emergence of a major Marxist force in Australian labour
movement politics that does not include many of the people who are presently
members of these Marxist groups.

PLEASE clip all extraneous text before replying to a message.

More information about the Marxism mailing list