Reply to Andy Newman

Marcus Strom

 

Democratic Socialist Perspective, the main component of the Australian Socialist Alliance, is in a bit of a pickle. Peter Boyle, a leading figure in the dominant grouping on the DSP’s national committee, is in full damage-limitation mode after the publication of an article by Greg Adler on its internal divisions (‘DSP split over future’ Weekly Worker December 1).

 

Boyle issued a terse statement on the DSP’s public discussion list in response to the article less than four hours after it was posted there ( www.groups.yahoo.com/group/GreenLeft_discussion ). Another hour later, he followed this empty protestation by posting a link to an article by Andy Newman of Britain’s Socialist Unity Network ( www.socialistunitynetwork.co.uk/voices/cadre.htm  ).

 

Boyle must be very desperate indeed to rely on Andy Newman’s threadbare defence of the fortunes of the Socialist Alliance in Australia. I winced with embarrassment for Newman and Boyle at its inaccuracies and overblown expectations for the SA, which, as I projected in March this year, has gone the way of the dodo. You may still see it around from time to time, but that is because, like the dodo, it’s stuffed.

 

The first inaccuracy in Newman’s article is to lump me in with Greg Adler. Comrade Adler would be the first person to agree that the distance between our respective political methodologies, practice and perspectives can be measured in astronomical units rather than angstroms. Before continuing with Newman’s errors and misunderstandings, which are legion, a comment on the DSP executive statement.

 

Boiled down, the political core of the statement actually backs up much of what Adler said in his article. The DSP regards the Socialist Alliance as its private property; debates about its future are for the eyes and ears of the initiate. While the DSP - formerly the Democratic Socialist Party - has a more literate and political culture of internal discussion than the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, it shares with it the same sect attitude that led the SWP to shut down the SA in England and Wales. The statement breathlessly informs us that when and if the DSP decides to end the pretence of the Socialist Alliance actually existing, it “will be promptly reported to the Socialist Alliance and announced publicly”. Gee, thanks.

 

Despite the DSP’s rejection of Trotskyism and its relatively fluffy, outward “green-left” appearance (particularly for someone as far away as Newman), it remains a loyal adherent to the sect-building methodology of James P Cannon, founding member of the US Socialist Workers Party. Cannon wrote the handbook on how to build a monolithic Trot-sect: The struggle for a proletarian party. It was endorsed by Lev Davidovich and to this day it is one of the main text books for aspiring young acolytes in the DSP and features on its courses, run by Doug Lorimer. Lorimer, of course, now briefs his students against Trotsky’s permanent revolution with a warmed-over soft-Stalinism.

 

Boyle and the DSP can easily remedy what the executive statement refers to as “selected and out-of-context quotations”. It can make the debates public. Of course, permitting the public voicing of differences is like salt on a slug to any Cannonite. Such an approach would only sully the pure and rarefied air breathed by the self-selected vanguard. Public scrutiny would only confuse the minds of the backward elements in the rank and file. All 200 and something of them.

 

Of course such practice has nothing in common with Marxism or Leninism, or any other scientific pursuit. It has all the hallmarks of religiosity and sectism. Surely the remaining members of the Socialist Alliance are due the courtesy of knowing the debates about their political future. Such debates should be open to the entire labour movement. There are hardly matters of political or personal security at stake: only sectarian pride.

 

There is a previous exchange on these matters between Doug Lorimer and myself, which was published in the Weekly Worker in 1999 (DSP letter to CPGB, December 11 1998: www.cpgb.org.uk/worker/279/nopubcrit.html ; response from CPGB, March 11 1999: www.cpgb.org.uk/worker/279/revop.html - Weekly Worker March 11 1999).

 

In my reply to Lorimer I wrote: “Your idea - shared by most Trotskyites - that the Bolsheviks constituted themselves as a separate party organisation from the Mensheviks in January 1912 and then banned their members from public discussion of party matters is a myth. What this myth serves - quite starkly in the case of the SWP, Socialist Party, Workers Power, etc, in Britain - is a method for building a mono-idea sect. It can only serve to cower internal opposition and hide debates from the advanced layers of the class. Even in the most democratic of such organisations, differences are only to be debated by the enlightened and ordained, who then must deliver the discovered truth, unadulterated, on fear of expulsion, to the unenlightened masses.”

 

The DSP still clearly holds to such a method. We wait with baited breath for Boyle or national secretary John Percy to deliver - on tablets of stone, no doubt - what the ordained have decided for the future of the Socialist Alliance in Australia after the DSP’s January congress (to which, I fancy, I won’t be invited).

 

The DSP adopted the “Socialist Alliance tactic” with two aims. The first was a genuine desire to build a new socialist party, the second was to mop up its rivals on the revolutionary left, specifically the International Socialist Organisation. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the DSP, it was incapable of achieving its first aim. How can a Cannonite sect act as the catalyst for an inclusive, democratic socialist movement? It has largely achieved its second aim, as Percy points out in The Activist, the internal DSP bulletin.

 

The fight between Percy and Boyle rests largely on the first aim. Percy seems to want to cut his losses; Boyle seems to think there is more to be gained from flogging the Socialist Alliance pony.

 

Now to Andy Newman

 

Andy, Andy, Andy. Where to start with such a befuddled and limp attempt at analysis, when he admits, “much of the detail of the situation is unknown to me”. Newman says my failings are fourfold. First, I have not set out the broad political context in which the SA operates in Australia (Andy, I never knew you cared so much). Second (now, don’t laugh), I failed to mention “the work of the SA in building what became the largest demonstration in Australian labour history” on November 15. Third (straight face), I do not mention the “real achievements” of the SA in the trade unions. And fourth ... well, Newman’s fourth point seems to be, ‘Hey, don’t dis’ the SA - you never know, anything could happen.’

 

On point one. Suffice to say that a reactionary conservative government sees a generational opportunity to put the unions out of business and is enacting laws to make that happen. The unions are fighting back, with marked success in gaining public support. However, there is a crisis of strategy. Despite some astute political observations by Greg Combet, secretary of the Australian Congress of Trade Unions, on the need for a broad democratic movement against the government, the strategy of the union leadership is to get Labor leader Kim Beazley elected as prime minister in 2007, then keep him to his word to “rip these laws up”. The Trot-left in its various guises says yah-boo-sucks to that - what you should all do is go on strike till we win. Or some variation on that theme.

 

In short, my position is that a democratic movement is needed to get rid of the Howard government, its laws and the constitution in order to establish a republic, based on the power of the labour movement. Strikes may be part of that strategy, as may be voting in an ALP government. But they are tactical considerations, not strategy.

 

Newman points to the “crisis of representation”. While the political contours in Australia are different from those of Britain, there is a growing disillusionment with the mainstream parties. It is not overly political, with some of it going to independents, some to the Green party, but a crisis of representation is emerging for the labour movement. Interestingly Newman points out: “Germany proves that the left can overtake an established Green electoral presence.” What he fails to expand upon is that this was the result of a significant split from the Social Democratic Party, combining with the remnants of the former ruling party of the German Democratic Republic.

 

My decision to join the Australian Labor Party has nothing to do with hitching my fortunes with the Labor left, but with finding a strategic position within the labour movement for any future developments or divisions that may emerge. Marxists need to work within the historical mass organisations of the working class: its unions and its social-democratic parties. At its establishment, I believed the Socialist Alliance in Australia offered an opportunity to fight for the unity of Marxists and socialists around a democratic program for working class liberation.

 

For me, these two decisions are not mutually exclusive. Andy Newman may remember that when I was on the Socialist Alliance executive in England and Wales, I regularly brought up the necessity for the SA to do consistent work in its approach to the Labour Party. This included work inside the Labour Party; not just tick-a-box come election time or sharing the occasional platform with this month’s favoured Labour left MP.

 

The scant opportunities offered by the Australian SA were squandered. By adapting to the DSP’s cretinist attitude to the ALP (basically a sectarian, ‘third-period’ Stalinite approach), its dire economism and lowest-common-denominator reformist program, and the continued Cannonite religiosity with which the DSP continued to work in the SA, that organisation went into almost immediate decline. The SA is now dead in Australia. And that is not hyperbole. Its branches do not meet; the national executive does not operate. There has been no members’ bulletin issued since August: the organisation does not function.

 

Newman points to the SA’s union involvement. Specifically he says: “The work of the SA in the Fightback campaigns against these anti-trade union laws are far more important than the election, and their success or failure in this field will probably determine whether or not the SA project in Australia prevails or not.” While I do not share the economistic fetish that electoral work is less important than union work, Newman hits on a truth here. And damns the SA in the process. He talks of the “Fightback campaigns” as if they were at the heart of the labour movement’s struggle with the government and its legislation. Yet they are not much more than figments of the fetid imagination of the DSP, that not even it pretends to uphold any more.

 

The June 11 National Union Fightback conference was a DSP/SA event. It has gone nowhere as an independent campaign. To be honest, I had forgotten about it until Newman reminded me in his article. Fightback does not register anywhere in the labour movement. Look at Green Left Weekly. Look at the Socialist Alliance website. If something was going on in the “Fightback campaigns” you would be reading about it. Read Sue Bolton’s ‘Where to now for the IR campaign?’ and see if you can spot any mention of it (Green Left Weekly December 7).

 

So, even judged by Newman’s own criterion, the SA is going nowhere. Less than a handful of local union positions and one Craig Johnston do not make a thriving union fraction. Even DSP national secretary John Percy notes that “in terms of actual activists in the structures of the SA itself, the militant trade union current [sic] doesn’t amount to much; most of the militant trade unionists in the SA are DSP members … Craig Johnston [jailed and since released former secretary of the AMWU manufacturing workers union] and Chris Cain [West Australia state secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia] don’t come to SA branch meetings. Craig is in the SA national executive; I think he’s come to half a meeting since the conference.” ’Nuff said.

 

Newman’s final blow against me is that I “discount other possible countervailing tendencies: for example, that the DSP could consciously work to build trust with other socialists, that there may be an influx of militants due to the trade union Fightback campaign, that Labor may win an election in the future, that the Greens may discredit themselves in coalition.” ‘Nostradamus’ Newman is correct. Labor may win an election in the future (you heard it here first). And the Greens may discredit themselves. (This they are already doing on Marrickville council, where, with the backing of conservative independents, they are keeping Labor off every council committee.)

 

The rest of it is pure fantasy. For socialists in Australia, the idea of the DSP working to build trust with other socialists is laughable. It has a long history of dishonest political dealings and opportunism, combined with its Cannonite monolithism. I would love the DSP to change, Andy, but I’m not holding my breath.

 

Newman makes a serious point about the relationship between cadre and the mass movement. A broad socialist project (and by that I mean encompassing masses of workers, not a dumbed-down, opportunist mish-mash) will require experienced cadre to succeed. However, not those schooled in Cannonite gospel. The cadre base of the DSP is somewhat different to that of the former Taaffeites leading the Scottish Socialist Party or even of Andy Newman’s former organisation, the SWP. Militant/SP/SSP and the SWP in Britain have and had a real presence in sections of the labour movement and even in some localities. During the anti-war movement, the organisation of the SWP was nationally significant. Further, the SWP/SP/SSP cadre are not entirely the spotty middle-class youth of Student Grant in Viz comics. There is a strong working class element. The same can not be said of the DSP. Its ‘turn to industry’ in the late 1980s and 90s gained it very little. Those cadre who did well in the broader labour movement either left or were pushed out. Historically, it has recruited mostly through its youth organisation, Resistance, on campuses and through ‘groovy’ campaigns that often involve wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt and drinking a lot of Nicaraguan coffee. Even Resistance is now barely functioning.

 

No doubt there are serious and sincere people in the DSP, and I hope that the future brings unity for Marxists and socialists in Australia. However, the DSP’s trajectory and method certainly is not leading us in that direction right now.

 

 

 

 

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