Bob Gould & the ALP

Peter Boyle peterb at
Tue Sep 24 22:07:39 MDT 2002

So Bob Gould can prove with statistics that a large proportion of the
working class in Australia still votes for the Australian Labor Party.
That’s a fact although what exactly this says about the relationship
between the ALP and working class today cannot be deduced from the
voting figures in a system of compulsory elections. There is a hell of a
lot of “lesser-evilism” in many workers’ decisions to vote for an  ALP
rather than a Liberal government. Further there is a lot of
anti-political sentiment in the working class. Hovever, some of the more
progressive elements of the working class (including a lot of young
workers) are beginning to vote Green.

The ALP also has a hegemony over the trade union movement. Increasingly,
however, this is maintained by bureaucratic means, based on narrow
carreerism and joining the ALP is increasingly seen as a means for
advancing a career as a trade union official.

The sustained exposure of the ALP as a capitalist party, a party of the
corporate rich, at the end of two decade of bi-partisan neo-liberal
reaction in Australia is a critical reality of politics today. A
challenge for socialists is to take full advantage of that exposure and
try and make some advance for our politics out of it. We cannot do this
with Gould’s theory of the ALP as a “workers party”. Gould’s false
“class line” denies socialists the right to tell the truth about the
ALP, branding attempts to do this as “ultraleft”.

Gould’s reading list for studying Lenin in context (in his September 22
post) is fine. But I don’t think he has studied them well enough
otherwise he would not dare to suggest that his recipe for total
adaptation to Laborism (justified by his dogmatic championing of a
distorted and fossilised tactic of working within the Labor parties) has
anything to do with the political tradition of Lenin or Trotsky. Lenin’s
assessment that parties like the ALP, the main relationship with the
working class serves as a means of the bourgeois leadership to dupe
workers is correct. His focus on what political program such parties
consistently implement and hence the real role they play in the class
struggle as the decisive factor in their political characterisation is
indisputable. Lenin and Trotsky’s writings on the Labour parties are all
about *how* to break this duping relationship -- what tactics to use.

Do socialists in Australia today have to take into account that the ALP
continues to systematically dupe workers? Of course. Should we use
united front tactics where possible to get a hearing? Sure we should
try. But in reality this is increasingly difficult in relation to the
ALP not because the small revolutionary left is sectarian to the ALP but
because the ALP leadership more and more shares a reactionary consensus
with the other main capitalist party. Leading ALP politicians
increasingly hold positions on issues such as war and the treatment of
refugees that are to the right of that of some Liberal politicians and
former politicians.

The only politicians in the ALP who speak out against the war, or
Australia’s racist treatment of refugees, for example, are dissidents.
Where ever possible we try and put these people on platforms at rallies,
interview them, etc. But that doesn’t make a “united front” with the
ALP. (Neither is the fact that most of the relatively small socialist
forces in the Australia calling for a preference for Labor over Liberal
in elections a real example of a “united front” tactic. It may help give
us a slightly better hearing before some workers but I would not
overestimate this. Ironically, for instance the most progressive workers
are likely to respond with “a plague on both your houses” to the ALP and
the Liberals.)

If you want to build the mass movement today you end up making use of a
diverse range of forces who support the issue/issues around which the
movement is being built. Some of these forces may include ALP
politicians, some may be trade union leaders, some community leaders,
Greens politicians, socialists and even dissident Liberal politicians or
even a former Liberal Prime Minister like Malcolm Fraser (as leading
ISOer and Victorian Refugee Action Coalition leader Judy McVey also

Gould may imagine there is some principle of class solidarity that
prevents socialists from supporting Malcolm Fraser (who speaks out
against the war and bi-partisan policy of mandatory detention of
refugees) as a speaker at an anti-war or pro-refugee rally but he’s
wrong. Should socialists deny Scott Ritter a platform against the war on
Iraq because he is a Republican?

Meanwhile applying Gould’s false class analysis of the ALP would it be
“principled” to allow former ALP Prime Minister Bob Hawke on the
platform (if he opposes the war) even though just last week he
recommended to the ALP state government in Queensland further
retrictions on public sector workers’ right to strike and won the
applause of arch-reactionary federal Liberal Minister for Workplace
Relations Tony Abbott. Abbott said Hawke was right and promptly
recommeded to the bosses that they campaign to extend this latest
anti-worker measure to the private sector!

In the name of a spurious “class line” that Gould thinks puts the ALP on
our side (by definition) Gould can cover for another mistake that
socialists sometimes make in trying to apply the united front tactic.

It is part of the ABC of Marxism that united front requires
revolutionaries to make concessions to non-revolutionary forces. But
another ABC is that socialists should struggle to keep the united front
politically independent of the ruling class. In single issue movements
this is done by making sure that the progressive content of the movement
is not sacrificed either by watering demands down to the point that they
become meaningless or by completely giving over all platforms totally to

How far we get in this struggle to keep this or that movement
politically independent depends on the balance of forces. And more often
than not this means that the socialists fail – if they even try – on
this score.

Given the ALP’s hegemony in the trade union movement most of the
sustained massed campaigns have been tightly controlled by ALP and
pro-ALP forces. They have used this control to switch the movement off
and on, deflect pressure from ALP governments and to consciously
marginalise (and sometimes exclude) the revolutionary left.

The interesting thing is that over the 1990s, when there was a retreat
of the social movements, the ALP lost some of the capacity to control
all mass actions (marching was a losers’ game, anyway, they argued).
This created an important but limited opening for the socialist left as
the movements begin to pick up but one that we could not even begin to
act on if we were paralysed by Gould’s false class line on the ALP.

I agree that Bob Gould’s politics shouldn’t be rejected because he is an
old, cranky, ecentric bookseller who writes creeds of “advice” to the
DSP and other socialist groups in the Socialist Alliance while he has
not put his “insights” to the test by a serious attempt to organise for
socialism within the ALP (although it can be tempting) but because his
analysis and his political prescriptions are just dead wrong. He offers
no real way forward for the socialist left. Note that Gould is
springing  into literary over-drive precisely to tell those of us who
have tried to build a socialist organisations in Australia: don’t work
together, don’t unite, don’t regroup, don’t try an pose a stronger voice
for socialism. Gould will protest that that is not what he is saying,
after all he has after all called for Socialist Alliance to remain a
forum for debate and discussion. He calls for an abstract unity of the
ALP Left, Greens and revolutionary left – but that’s not really on the
cards at this stage. Read carefully what he is prescribing and you will
see that he really puts forward a receipe for the actual process of left
regroupment to fail.

Socialist Alliance is providing a forum for democratic debate but it is
discussion linked to a *constructive* project of joint work and joint
projection of a socialist politics. See <>. It
is a multi-tendency formation which avoids wasting too much time on
abstract debate realising that the differences in the left are not going
to be solved in one almighty point-scoring, name-calling debate. A year
and a half of working together in Socialist Alliance has been built on
that.  More people than Gould realise now respect the Socialist Alliance
for this. Over the last weeks I have spent time talking to a range of
these people in Perth and Brisbane. This is something that can be built
on, and many others in the labour movement recognise and respect this.
This has prompted us to take an initiative to make it possible for
Socialist Alliance to do a bit more. Perhaps we are fooling ourselves
about the possibilities for taking this forward. But let’s see.

The left in Australia doen’t need a Guru, insightful or not. It needs a
constructive and democratic processes like the Socialist Alliance. There
are, of course other possible political courses. At at the modest stage
of development of the revolutionary left in Australia, nobody can say
with absolute confidence this is the right or only way. Revolutionary
socialists could try working within the ALP trying to reform it or carry
out some sort of entryism. If some people want to try that road (and as
far as I can see Gould doesn’t seriously try this, even while he remains
in the ALP -- and no one else is trying this road either) then fine. Do
it and then let’s compare progress notes later. Just the same goes for
the option of working in the Greens (a better bet than the ALP) .

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