Labor, Marxists and Gould and Painter's distortions
Steve Painter and Rose McCann
spainter at optushome.com.au
Wed Sep 25 22:34:41 MDT 2002
Bob Gould responds to Nick Fredman, Richard Fidler and Peter Boyle
Nick Fredman and Richard Fidler bring this discussion back to earth a bit,
and in contrast to Peter Boyle, address some of the tactical issues we are
discussing, in a calm and non-abusive way, which is a relief after Alan
Bradley and Peter Boyle, to whom I will reply on a personal note later.
Richard and Nick go to the centre of any reasonable textual debate about the
united front. I have no fundamental disagreement with the Fredman-Fidler
formulation, and that is one way of expressing the strategic conceptions of
Lenin, Trotsky and the early Comintern.
I'd point also, however, to the tactical aspect of the practice of the
Comintern before Stalinisation. The British and Australian CPs both, with
the full backing of the Comintern, experimented with a pedagogic agitation
internal to the Labour Party that was most comprehensively expressed in the
National Left Wing Movement in the British Labour Party, which had great
success after the betrayal of the 1926 General Strike, and was liquidated in
1928 as part of the vicious, Stalinist counter-revolution embodied in the
Third Period strategy.
Fidler and Fredman sensibly present the issues strategically, by contrast
with the simple reiteration by Peter Boyle of another harsh paragraph about
Social Democracy, out of the disputed Lenin speech. I return to my general
point in relation to Boyle that readers of this exchange should work their
way through some of the material I've indicated, and consider the whole
context of the debate, in relation to current questions of the united front.
With Nick Fredman's description of his own political practice I have no
quarrel either, and he makes the sensible point that his only major ally in
battles in his union branch in rural NSW is the only ALP member in sight,
which is an important point, sociologically speaking.
When Nick extrapolates his own strategic conceptions and practice to the DSP
as a whole, he's being a bit ingenuous. Nick's an old hand, relatively
speaking. He has been around for 10 years or so, he's a loyal and active DSP
member trailblazing in a significant area with several educational
institutions, where a number of big rural towns are growing into cities, so
I'm more than willing to listen to his practical experiences in this
One of the features of the DSP, that -- despite the fact that Boyle thinks I
'm an "old crank" -- I find very attractive, is their practical trailblazing
and some of the most useful people in the DSP are people like Nick Fredman,
Shane Hopkinson and Brett Kupskoff in Rockhampton, some of the people in
Darwin, although not all, and Alex Bainbridge and Kamala Emanuel in
Tasmania, and people like them.
Even, however, in these areas, these comrades' understanding of the united
front is not uniform.
I'm very dubious about the strategic emphasis of the DSP comrades in Darwin.
They seem to have an approach quite different to the one outlined by Nick
and seem to concentrate their fire on a rather full-blown "exposure tactic"
directed at the Laborites in the Northern Territory. This seems to me to be
particularly unwise in the NT, where a relatively progressive Labor
government has just been elected, after 25 years of Tory rule, in the most
frontier part of Australia. This new Labor government has several Aboriginal
ministers, and its accession to office over the reactionary Tories is
regarded, by nearly all progressive elements in the NT, particularly
Aboriginal people, as a great step forward.
The primary focus on exposing Labor adopted in the NT seems totally nuts to
me, given the enthno-cultural composition of that region. In addition to
this, the apparent tactical emphasis on the issue of the total legalisation
of all drugs, seems to me very unwise in the context of the NT, where
substance abuse is a huge practical day-to-day problem in Aboriginal
communities. There is a variety of responses to this problem in the
Aboriginal communities, including quite widespread support, in some
Aboriginal communities, for total prohibition.
This is a difficult and vexed area for us in the Marxist tradition, and it
is not absolutely clear that there is an immediate, simple answer.
It seems to me that the dominant strategic focus of the DSP comrades in the
Northern Territory on this question, in they way that they have posed it --
associating a totally libertarian stance on all kinds of substances,
combined with an exposure tactic towards the Labor Party -- is insensitive
and imprudent. It is particularly insensitive to the real problems of
Aboriginal life, over and above the strategic issue of the united front.
I don't want to be too pejorative about this question because it is such a
difficult and serious question and ought not to be decided on the run.
I would like to see a careful, possibly private, discussion of those issues
to arrive at a sensible strategic orientation. I gather from reading the DSP
internal material that there has been some sort of split and defections from
the DSP in Darwin and I don't know how this relates to the legalisation of
drugs question, but I'm sure it does.
Taken as a whole, I regard the DSP's trailblazing activities as positive,
and I respect the experience of the people who take on these activities,
particularly because the fact that they're operating in these environments,
brings them into contact with Australian society as it really is, and often
sharply poses the question of the united front because -- again to use the
old saw, about life itself -- operating in these remoter areas tends to
throw into bold relief the real class divide between Labor and Liberal in
Australian society, rather than the DSP's equals sign between "two
capitalist parties". The Fredman-Fidler formulation is very important from
The Fredman-Fidler view is in fact quite different to a view of Australian
sociology, politics and life, that totally equates Labor and Liberal as two
capitalist parties, as if that is the last word on the question.
What initially got me going, on this current argument with the DSP, was
listening to the reporters at the December 2000 DSP conference, placing
their whole emphasis in both reports on the primary strategic question in
both the student and labour movements at that time being the total "exposure
Both reporters spoke for more than an hour on this theme, and were greeted
by exaggerated total unanimity, behind this incorrect strategic emphasis.
This presented to me the stark reality of the internal atmosphere in the
DSP. This debate about the united front isn't primarily a debate about
history. It's a debate about immediate strategic questions as well. I've
introduced the historical dimension deliberately, because I'm sick to death
of being battered by Lorimer and Boyle's fixation on a couple of paragraphs
from Lenin, wrenched ruthlessly out of context to defend an incorrect
The only answer to that is to point to the whole balance of the Bolshevik
experience in these matters, and I think I've done that rather efficiently,
in the reading list I've recommended -- as even Boyle, and certainly
Fredman, concede. (I bitterly resent Boyle's accusation that I introduce
these questions as some kind of cover for bad practice, and the crazy
obsession of an "old crank" with the DSP, which is what Boyle says about me
in his latest post. These contributions of mine are deeply felt, carefully
considered, and based on reflections on a lifetime of socialist agitation,
some of it successful, some of it correct, and some of it misdirected.)
One has only to read the editorials of Green Left and the dominating,
constant, implacable exposure aspect of them, and consider the practice of
the DSP in the student movement, to get an idea of what I mean. The two
other active socialist groups in the student movement, the ISO and Socialist
Alternative, both locate their conflicts with the DSP partly in this area.
Leading members of both groups assert, that they both separately have a
strategic orientation to encouraging the division between left and right
Labor elements, who are the dominant force in the student movement. Both the
ISO and Socialist Alternative students say that they are trying to form a
strategic united front that includes the broad left elements, the three
Marxist groups, and the Labor left in a kind of bloc against the right-wing
Laborites and Liberals, who tend to operate in coalition in the student
The ISO and Socialist Alternative students assert that, in practice, the DSP
students bitterly oppose any general bloc of that sort, because they say the
left Labor students are, in a sense, the worst, because they act as a cover
for the capitalist Labor Party, and this strategic aspect of the DSP's
practical activity is confirmed by the generalisations made by the DSP's
national student organiser in her recent report in the DSP internal
I don't want to overstate this, because the conflicts with the ISO and
Socialist Alternative over these matters, and my generalisations about them
in my polemics, have had some effect on the strategic emphasis of the DSP,
and there seems to me to be the beginnings of discussion of these matters in
DSP circles, in an indirect way. The indirect beginnings of such a
discussion are probably inevitable in an organisation as tight as the DSP.
I take note of the Socialist Alliance appeal to the Laborites on the Iraq
war, in terms of the anti-militarist tradition of the ALP, written
obviously by Dick Nichols, and I regard that statement as the beginning of a
bit of wisdom in DSP circles.
But it's clearly a bit of a change of emphasis from the strategic approach
of the recent past, and the strategic emphasis that they place in this
argument on the only piece of Lenin that they quote in this debate.
Nick, defending the DSP, asserts that there has been some discussion on
these strategic questions in the Socialist Alliance. Again, he's being a bit
ingenuous. The only place that a real head-to-head debate on union
disaffiliation from the ALP took place was Sydney, where Phil Sandford, one
of the national convenors of the Socialist Alliance, insisted on it. He
argued the case against union disaffiliation, and his comprehensive case
against disaffiliation was only summarily reported in Green Left.
In the other cities, where the DSP were the main organisers of the seminars,
they were organised so the debate wasn't so clear on these questions, and I'
m told by people who were present at the debate in WA and Melbourne that the
Green Left accounts of the debates were heavily slanted in favour of the
In these matters the DSP leadership leans heavily on a proletarian ally of
theirs, Chris Cain in WA, an energetic trade union militant from Liverpool,
UK, who was once a member of the British Militant group, and who conducts a
very boisterous and quite effective "exposure of Laborism agitation" of his
own - which suits the DSP.
In my view, Chris Cain and the Militant group in Australia, who are nice
people and effective agitators are, in relation to the Labour Party
question, a bit like reformed alcoholics, are in relation to grog. They tend
to over-compensate for their donkey's years of quite effective entry work in
the Labour Party by an "expose Laborism" rhetoric even more extreme than
that of the DSP.
Chris Cain is a serious trade unionist and it happens that there are couple
of other significant trade unionists in WA who have had a similar approach
to the Laborites for the last 20 years or so, but they don't constitute the
mass breakaway from Laborism that they're presented as in DSP circles, and
neither does the group of militants in Victoria, which includes Workers
First, the Textile Union's Michelle O'Neill and the CFMEU.
Incidentally, Nick, the DSP does describe Michelle O'Neill internally as a
"rather cynical ALP member". That's the description in a report by Sue Bull
in a recent internal bulletin. I didn't invent it, and in serious political
matters I don't invent anything.
Time has run out, I'll discuss matters such as my age, "crankiness", "eccent
ricity" and hairstyle in another post.
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