A debate that will achieve nothing

by

Doug Jordan

For the past month I have watched the debate unfold about the relationship between the DSP and Socialist Alliance with some amazement. To call it a debate is in fact an abuse of the word. In reality it is about an attempt of a group of people to politically destroy by abuse and vilification those who offer even limited criticism of their group’s past or present policies. Those of my friends who know about this debate are absolutely bemused to see so-called comrades from the same political traditions trade insults in such a manner at a time when there is an urgent need for unity to defeat the Howard Government’s attack on working people. It merely confirms their long-held attitudes about the nature of self-proclaimed vanguard Leninist groups. However, the vast majority of my politically active friends know nothing, and don’t care, about looking at the vast amount of material that this debate has produced. This alone should be enough to convince people that the debate will do nothing towards the building of a broadly based movement in defence of our rights, or building a mass political alternative to the Liberal and Labor parties.

One of the tests of any political party is their ability to look honestly and openly at their history, admit their errors and accept criticism. However, it seems that the DSP is completely unable to follow this course. In particular it resents any criticism from former members. Ex-members who remain friendly to the DSP or withdraw from political activity are acceptable to the DSP. Those who remain politically active, particularly those who join other political parties, are perceived as enemies and are often treated as such. The DSP almost seems to believe that there is some kind of vast conspiracy of these ex-members and that they are motivated only by sectarian attitudes, and that they would do anything to destroy any project the DSP is involved in. In reality most ex-members of the DSP are too busy with their own political work and are not consumed with paying off old scores even if they exist. The majority I have talked to over the past 20 years have taken many positive experiences from their time in the DSP into their new areas of political work. They thus repeat the history of those who left the Communist Party and maintained their radical outlook after the crimes of Stalin were exposed from the 1950s. Many of these people made important contributions to the social movements, the trade unions, and the building of a left wing in the Labor Party in the 1960s and 1970s.

A particular target in this debate has been Bob Gould. Bob can speak for himself and I have no intention of defending him, but a number of points need to be made. Bob at times can be an annoying, ego-driven individual. At the recent Labour History conference I copped a spray from Bob for a paper I co-presented. Rather fortunately since I have major hearing problems I missed a great deal of what he said. However, the point is that criticisms in politics need to be responded to politically and not by character assassination and abuse. Cannon showed much more balance and objectivity in his book, The First Ten Years of American Communism, when talking about many of the early leaders of the CPUSA who became infected with Stalinism. It is an approach that many in the DSP seem unable to adopt.

There are many similar personalities to Bob in all political parties, the trade unions and the social movements. Personalities aside, they may also have some important contributions to make to the wider political debate about tactics and policies that need to be adopted. It is also interesting to note that the DSP attitude towards Bob has undergone several changes. In early 1983 an entire section of Direct Action was ordered to be pulped because it contained an attack on some of the politics/actions of Bob. At the time the DSP (then the SWP) was interested in united front work with Bob, and the DSP national leadership considered it was wrong for the paper to contain this article. On one hand this may well show that the DSP has been flexible in its attitudes towards Bob and has sought to work with him in the past despite claims that he has always been a sectarian or reformist. It also shows that Bob himself is at times not the complete sectarian/reformist that the current DSP leadership likes to portrayal him as, and he has been willing to seek possible grounds for political co-operation with the DSP.

Bob argues with considerable passion about the necessity of working within the ALP. It is not a tactic that I support. I think, as do indeed most of my ex-ALP friends, that the prospect of building a left wing within the ALP at this point of time is almost zero. In the course of the debate about working within the ALP, Bob in my view tends to look at developments and prospects for change within the ALP with rose-coloured glasses. But there is a vast difference between saying this and accusing Bob of defending the current leadership and policies of the ALP. This is nothing more than a crude and blatant attempt to smear a political opponent.

It should also be noted that working within the ALP to build a left wing used to be the position of the DSP. The position that it now argues against with such passion was the one it used to carry out and it would vigorously attack anyone who did not support this tactic. I would doubt very much if the younger DSP members knew this aspect of their party history. The fact that it often carried out this work in a sectarian manner, refused to work with other radical socialists inside the ALP, and as a result failed to achieve anything, is of course another point. I can well remember the sharp criticisms the DSP made of other parties in the Fourth International that advocated the tactics they now advocate. Circumstances change and as a result tactics have to change with them. There is nothing wrong with a political party changing, or even reversing, long-held positions, that is just good political sense, but it is the cynical way in which this change has been carried out that is most alarming.

There is a very real problem in the ways in which the DSP justifies this change. There is no doubt that the ALP has to be politically challenged over its current policies, and alternative parties and movements must be built to offer a different perspective to the one currently followed by the current ALP leadership. However, the problem remains that the vast bulk of the working class continues to support the ALP. This is the central point that Bob uses to justify his approach to the ALP. And the DSP’s own document acknowledges the fact that some unionists have joined the ALP because they believe that it is the only effective vehicle for defeating Howard’s attacks. This means, in particular, there is a need for very careful language when talking about the ALP so as not to cut off the possibility of influencing developments within the party.

The current approach of the DSP almost certainly precludes this possibility and ritual abuse is not a very effective form of political action. It makes little or no attempt to reach out and influence the majority of workers who continue to support the ALP because they regard it as the only party that can mount an effective challenge to Howard. This approach is echoed by a similar approach to the rise of the Greens, which the DSP regards as having stolen the left vote that belongs to them. In reality, you have to earn the votes and trust of workers, and the current approach and use of language precludes the possibility of the DSP achieving this. It also precludes the chance of the DSP ever being able to approach or influence any left wing that may emerge within the ALP in the coming period. This is not just the language of Third Period Stalinism, it is also the language of sectarianism, which has deep roots in the Trotskyist movement. From Oehlerism in the 1930s to the Sparts of today there has been a consistent tendency to equate the base of the Social Democratic parties to their leadership. It is not a very productive way to reach out and influence those workers who continue to support the ALP.

The major question that seems not to asked in this current debate is why so few people have joined Socialist Alliance. Even if we accept the figure of 1000 that is claimed as membership, that is only a small percentage of the number of radicals who stand to the left of the ALP. In each of our major centres in Australia there would be at least two to three times this number of potential members who have refused to join Socialist Alliance but who continue to be political active in the mass movements as independents. It is easy for the DSP and its supporters to dismiss critics of its actions, like Bob Gould, Greg Adler, Ed Lewis, and no doubt Michael Schembri, as hopeless sectarians who are not seriously committed to building a multi-tendency socialist party, but in reality the criticisms of the DSP and its role within Socialist Alliance came from a large number of individuals who had no previous experience either with the DSP, or indeed any other political group.

From what they tell me, they found the DSP to be often heavy-handed in its approach, intolerant of those who did not agree with them, and determined to force the pace of change within Socialist Alliance. The DSP itself admits that it failed to convince any significant number of non-aligned independents to support its policies. This should have made the DSP pause and reflect on its direction, but instead it has pushed ruthlessly ahead with its determination to model the Socialist Alliance in its own image, not caring about the damage it may do as a result.

One of the reasons why so relatively few people joined Socialist Alliance is the perceptions that people hold of the DSP. It is rightly regarded as a monolithic party that in the past has been totally unwilling to accept political differences within its own ranks. During its first 15 years, when I was a member, minority groups seldom lasted a long time in the party. They either left of their own accord or were driven out on a series of trumped-up charges. Differences were often seen as a result of alien class forces that had to be driven out of the party. It is a process that I took part in, or accepted, with some enthusiasm. It was only after that I left the party that I started to understand the absurdity of such a view and approach. Differences between socialists are inevitable and there is no reason to believe that even sharp differences cannot be accommodated within a single party.

The present dispute in the DSP leadership is, in fact, not the first significant dispute to occur at the leadership levels of the DSP. The last one was in 1982-83, when a section of the leadership of the party refused to accept the break with the American Socialist Workers Party, which previously had been a close ally of the DSP. The differences escalated to cover almost every aspect of party policy. The dissidents included both founding members of the party and former members of the Communist League some, of whom had been included in the National Committee. After an absence from National Committee meetings for a few years I can remember the shock I felt when the majority leadership set out to destroy this opposition. Other splits had made little difference to me, but the people involved in this dispute were in the main long-standing comrades and to see them treated in this way started a process that was to lead me out of the party. This was despite the fact that I was in no way a supporter of their politics.

A few years ago a good radical friend of mine heard the graphic details of the Star Chamber process that was used to drive these people out of the party from one of the people who was expelled. She then turned to me and asked: “How could you accept that?” Well, in reality, quite easily. It is not until you really understand that there is a worthwhile political culture outside the straitjacket that ideologically pure groups like to impose on their members that you finally leave. While the fine details of the DSP history may not be known, its reputation as a rigid monolithic party with rigid discipline is known, and until this changes Socialist Alliance will not be able to attract and hold large numbers of independent socialists.

The DSP is also unable to acknowledge to any great extent the achievements of other socialist groups that stand outside the Socialist Alliance. While it mentioned the election of Steve Jolly to the Yarra Council, Green Left Weekly has seldom given much coverage to some of the campaigns he has been involved in. While it claims Jolly’s victory is due to the failure of the Greens to live up to promises, it is almost certainly has as much to do with the grassroots campaigning the Socialist Party has carried out in the area for many years. Unlike nearly all the other self-proclaimed vanguard parties, the Socialist Party actually engages in campaigns that address issues of concern to people. These may not be the big issues that the vanguard parties decide are the crucial ones, but they do provide a bridge and open up the possibility of a wider hearing for radical ideas. Sneering references to the size of the Socialist Party outside Melbourne cannot cover up the fact that it has achieved something that no socialist group has achieved for about 40 years — the election of a socialist to local government in a major urban area.

For a party that proclaims to be interested in Marxist theory and history, the DSP has produced virtually no overall Marxist history of the Australian labour movement. Their last attempt was the series produced for Direct Action back in the 1970s, and nothing of significance has been produced since. The only group that takes this task seriously is the Socialist Alternative , which has produced a number of well-written books on various aspects of Australian history. You don’t have to agree with every aspect of their analysis to appreciate the enormous amount of research that has produced these books. Yet they have often passed unremarked in the pages of GLW. Someone wanted a free copy before he would even considered writing a review. Really? If they were really seriously committed to writing a review, copies of the book can be found in libraries, including hopefully that of the DSP.

A few years ago a group of people and small parties came together to establish the original Socialist Alliance. It brought together people who had worked jointly around a number of issues, including defence of the Builders Labourers Federation. It represented a small attempt to overcome the mindless sectarianism that had been a feature of left politics for decades. It had modest aims, which included production of a magazine and discussion of differences in a comradely way. It was certainly not an attempt to set up yet another vanguard party. While it functioned for a relatively short time it did point to the potential for real co-operation and respect between different socialist traditions. Yet in the DSP’s internal bulletin, The Activist, John Percy denounced us in a report endorsed by the National Committee as being a talk-shop for people on the way out of politics. Is it any surprise, therefore, that a number of people did not accept that the DSP was now willing to engage in open-ended co-operation with other socialists?

Right from the start, the present Socialist Alliance seemed to be conceived as an alliance of socialist parties in which the DSP was dominant. There seemed to be no real role for independents to join and play a significant role. This view is supported by the admitted fact that significant numbers of independent socialists have not remained members of Socialist Alliance. A far more open process may well have achieved more and attracted more support. This could have included calling a conference in which its potential members could have discussed the program and structure of the proposed new party. Such an approach would run the risk of escaping the rigid control of the DSP and I suspect that may have been the reason why such an approach was not adopted. Such an approach is also less certain of achieving anything and this may also have been a factor.

It is also instructive to look at the relative progress of the Communist Party of Australia and the DSP after 40 years of existence. This is a reasonable time in which to judge the effectiveness of a political party. In 1960, after 40 years of existence, the CPA had a membership of many thousands. This was at a time when the population was not much more than one-third of what it is today. This should put into perspective the DSP’s almost continual boasting about its size compared with other left groups. Compared with the CPA at the same point of time, the DSP has made only minor progress. Despite the assault of the red-baiting Groupers during the 1950s, the CPA still had a significant base in the trade unions at the leadership levels and in the rank-and-file. From the 1930s onwards it had led major strikes, particularly in the period after the Second World War, when CPA- led unions smashed the wage-pegging regulations of the Labor government and achieved the 40-hour week. The DSP’s achievements are far more modest. It has a small number of impressive trade union activists who have played important roles in a number of disputes. It works with, but almost certainly cannot claim to politically lead, the militant union current based in Victoria.

During the Cold War the CPA, despite adverse political conditions, was able to have many of its members elected to local councils across Australia. This was an impressive achievement, and CPA councillors were able to introduce some minor but important reforms at he local level. To date, neither the DSP or SA have been able to achieve even a significant vote, let alone get anyone elected. The CPA was also able, during the Cold War, to maintain the foundations of a peace movement that challenged the ideology of the Western powers. While it was often corrupted by often-slavish support of the Soviet Union and its policies the Vietnam antiwar movement that emerged in the 1960s owes a considerable debt to this activity. The DSP played a honourable and important role in building the Vietnam antiwar movement and insisting on building mass actions on the streets. At the same time, it has often inflated its own role within this movement and has ignored the contributions made by other individuals and groups.

Lastly, I wish to make a few points about the Greens. It is no secret that I joined the Greens a few years ago. For me, and many other socialists, it seemed to be the only viable party that could have some impact from the left on Australian politics. I don’t expect everyone to follow this course, but at least the DSP could acknowledge the simple fact that on the key issues the Greens have taken a principled stand that in essence is not that much different from that of many of the socialist groups. The majority of their members may well have illusions in capitalism and the possibility of reforms, but that is no different from that of the majority of ALP supporters and members. The DSP attitude to the Greens often rests on hostility, despite routine calls for unity. I suspect this is based on anger and frustration at the continued growth of the Greens.

This is clearly shown by their crude analysis of the Greens in their latest documents. One wonders where the view that the Greens have a significant number of wealthy supporters who will exert rightward pressures comes from. In reality, the social composition of the Greens is not a great deal different from that of many socialist groups. It may have a few more professional workers among its supporters and members, but this hardly makes them wealthy in the way the DSP has used the term. In any case, this also reflects in part the changing nature of the Australian workforce. The Greens also have many teachers, social workers, students, unemployed, industrial workers and so on, in their ranks. It is much more that just a party of comfortable and well off middle-class people.

Very few parties on the left can claim to have a significant base in the working-class communities that can effectively challenge the dominance of the ALP, but the Greens do better than anyone else. Here in Melbourne, the Greens have had a presence on the Moreland and Maribyrnong Councils for a number of years. These are traditional areas of ALP support. At the last council elections a few weeks ago the Greens made another breakthrough and had members elected to the Brimbank and Moonee Valley councils, both areas of traditional ALP support. At both federal and state elections the Greens have achieved 4-8 per cent voting support in these areas. This may well be modest, but is considerably more than any other radical group. Why than does the DSP fail to at least acknowledge this level of support?

To finish back to where I started. I doubt very much if the debate about the relationship between the DSP and the SA will have much impact on radical politics beyond a very small and narrow circle. The political struggle against the current wave of attacks will continue. Within this, the DSP may make some contributions. It is party composed of many people of high idealism committed to a great cause, but it is also a party determined to impose its own views on others and unwilling to adapt or share power with others. It is also trapped in a sectarian maze and is unable to accept or acknowledge the contributions made by other socialist groups or groups outside its own traditions.

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