Mick Armstrong’s prayer meeting about May 1968

by

Bob Gould

On Sunday evening Mick Armstrong came into my shop, as he does when he’s in Sydney, worked his way through my Marxist shelves picking up all kinds of things for his personal bookstall, which he conducts at Socialist Alternative events in Melbourne, and I gave him the usual significant discount as a pretty good customer. The arrangement suits him and it suits me, and we had the usual desultory exchange of political ideas.

I took the mickey out of him a bit for the way he has raised the notion of propagandism to high theory and I asked whether he would be willing to debate the ideas in his pamphlet on propagandism some time, and he said he would.

Mick was in Sydney for what has been billed on posters around Sydney as his national tour, along with a comrade from a small socialist group in Italy.

The next day I read the rather unpleasant and totally reactionary opinion piece in The Australian by the former editor of Australian Left Review, David Burchall, pouring hostility all over the events of May 1968 and the generation of 1968, of which I’m one.

That tipped the balance, and I decided to go to Mick’s meeting and have a bit of a look at Socialist Alternative on its home ground. I thought I might also have my five minutes or so of discussion from the floor on the issues raised by May 1968 and the events of the whole period from 1965 to 1972, during which I was a rather energetic participant and was arrested about nine times, mainly for demonstration offences, but also over censorship matters. (Incidentally, it seems I’m going to get 10 minutes of interview time on the current censorship upheaval, related to the past, on the James Valentine Show on ABC Radio around 1pm on Wednesday, May 28.)

Sydney people know that I can usually squeeze a pretty good argument into five minutes from the floor at any meeting, and I was confident I’d be able to put forward a bit different slant to Mick.

When I got to the meeting I was favourably impressed by the size and composition of the audience. The small meeting room in the Newtown Neighbourhood Centre contained about 55 people a fair proportion of them apparently first-year university students, and they included a fair sprinkling of people of colour. I hadn’t seen most of the crowd before, even in Socialist Alternative red flag contingents at demonstrations, and I don’t really expect to see a lot of them again, due to the revolving door nature of Socialist Alternative membership and recruitment.

No other socialist groups were present that I recognised and there was one bloke who I know pretty well: a syndicalist cab driver who, unusually, is also a Labor Party member.

The meeting kicked off with a report for a minute or two by a rather gloomy looking bloke I’ve seen around Socialist Alternative, who it emerges is a school teacher. He reported on Socialist Alternative’s intervention at the recent teachers’ stopwork meeting, claiming that the group had sold 75 copies of the Socialist Alternative magazine at the stopwork (long experience has taught me to discount claimed sales at such events by about half) and he explained that the group had told the teachers how the Labor Party betrayed.

The thing that struck me as curious was that he at no stage explained what the teachers’ dispute was about. One might think that for the education of the comrades some knowledge of the dispute might have been useful. In Socialist Alternative’s unimaginative world, that’s apparently not important, only the number of magazine sales.

The Italian speaker went on for about 40 minutes, which was a bit on the painful side, as he wasn’t very fluent in English and his political conclusions seemed pretty obscure. At the end of his speech he got dutiful explosive applause, led from the platform.

Then Mick spoke, also for about 40 minutes. His speech was reasonably rousing, although pretty general and he didn’t really make any serious observations about the strategic and tactical issues for Australia posed by the events of May 1968 and 1969, other than very general ones.

Mick himself is a rather unlikely candidate for the role of cult leader, but in a way he has clearly become one, which has got me beat a bit. He got uproarious applause.

Then the chair of the meeting gave a little package of Socialist Alternative books to the Italian comrade as a memento and the meeting was closed.

To say the least, I was gobsmacked. That was partly personal irritation, being the only person present who had been a reasonably significant participant in the events of that time in Australia, but the personal insult was not the most important point. What got under my skin politically was the graphic way, demonstrated at that meeting, a propaganda group actually operates in the rounded way that Mick theorises in his recent pamphlet.

A discussion of May 1968, which was a rolling, global revolutionary event, marked by popular assemblies, and an enormous clash of ideas, strategic conceptions and a whole ferment of argument and debate, can’t be reduced to a totally ritualised formulaic meeting.

Socialist Alternative is turning into a political replica of the Hillsong Church. It is propagandism gone totally loopy – a hermetically sealed world from which serious argument appears to be excluded.

It’s possible that, had I not been there, the meeting might have had some fairly controlled discussion, but from the meeting organisers’ point of view my presence seems to have precluded that. That little universe is clearly so tense that the presence of even one socialist outsider sends the little hive into total defence mode.

I got up at the back of the meeting and said surely they couldn’t have such a farcical performance without a discussion and I repeated my point loudly as I left.

Two young women followed me into the street and one, possibly speaking for the other one, said she had been to a few Socialist Alternative meetings and they were all pretty much like that. She shook her head in amused disbelief. She said she recognised me as “the bloke from the bookshop” and volunteered that she had read my critique of Socialist Alternative on the web and she agreed with my view.

Despite the fact that I’m writing this in a mood of exasperation and irritation, I’m also rather glad that I attended the meeting because I have the very distinct feeling that I got an very good view of the kind of protracted moment that Socialist Alternative is going through as it transforms from a socialist group into a kind of cult with a most unlikely cult leader.

I repeat my offer to Mick. Why don’t we set up some kind of public discussion or debate on, say, a whole Sunday afternoon, and discuss the merits or demerits of socialist propagandism as a system, with all comers invited.

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18 Responses to “Mick Armstrong’s prayer meeting about May 1968”

  1. Anthony Main Says:

    Bob,

    Good luck with the debate. Or more precisely, good luck getting SA to actually discuss the ideas raised in Mick’s book. SP challenged SA to a debate a few months back and this did not happen.

    We wanted to discuss their idea of building a propaganda group in isolation to the class — as they are doing. Unfortunately none of their members really defended the idea of building a propaganda group, instead they all came along and spoke one after another on broad parties!

    It was all very weird. They way they spoke you wouldn’t have known that the CWI is involved in more of these formations than anyone else and has written as much on the issue as most. If I didn’t know better I would say that the plan from SA was not to discuss the issue at all.

    It was not as weird in my opinion as the fact that it seems none of their members actually question the propaganda group idea or as you have noted above the lack of democratic discussion in the organisation.

    I attended one session of their recent Marxism Conference and the situation was similar to the one you outline above. The session was on China and one of their young leaders chaired the meeting. Usually this would suffice but in this case they also had Mick co-chairing the meeting only calling in pre planned speakers.

    The Chinese guest spoke poorly and outlined some fairly negative perspectives for struggle in China, he didn’t put a position about basic questions like the state of the unions and didn’t really answer any of the questions put to him. However the SA members gave him a rousing applause as if he was Trotsky returning from exile!

    As you say it felt more like I was in a Hillsong Church ceremony rather than a socialist meeting. The tragedy is that in my opinion SA are attracting some very good people who are unfortunately getting some very bad training.

    If you are interested in reading the SP report of the debate that we had with SA it can be read here.

  2. matt Says:

    It has been pretty clear to me for some time that SAlt have some significant similarities to evangelical churches. Regular prayer meetings/book readings and an unwavering faith in the principles of their organisation without critical discourse.

    Also their complete inability to converse politically with those who would otherwise be closer to their ideology than most. No to mention the fact that the only national political forum in which they are able to legitimise themselves is the National Union of Students. At least Socialist Alliance contest state and federal elections.

    As was stated above by Mr Main, no matter what the forum is, SAlt have a predetermined agenda which is forwarded via predetermined speakers who will stay on message with super-human discipline. I have attended workshops on Queer activism and the changes made to Melbourne Uni where SAlt members have commandeered the meeting to forward the benefits of taking to the streets. It’s very disappointing to witness.

  3. Bob Gould Says:

    On Leftwrites, Chav has called for me to be banned because of the above post. What are the grounds: the fact that I argue with Socialist Alternative, make a few points and take the mickey out of the evangelical Christian-style atmosphere that appears to prevail at SA meetings?

    Chav repeatedly accuses me of using uncomradely language, but at least my language is a big funny on occasions to help make a point.

    Chav, appears to react in a choleric way to any political critique of Socialist Alternative. He has said in the past that I’m obsessed with SA. That’s farcical. I’ve only written about the organisation two or three times. If he was interested in anything but SA, he might have noticed I’ve written a large number of articles about various matters in labour movement politics, most recently about electricity privatisation in NSW.

    I’ve also written critiques of the DSP leadership and commentaries on the crisis in that organisation. Do you expect Socialist Alternative to be exempted from political discussion in the workers movement?

    Just to give this discussion a bit more context, this is a genuine question: was discussion from the floor allowed in other meetings in Mick’s national tour, or was it only banned in Sydney (possibly because of my presence)? An answer to that would fill in a couple of pieces of the jigsaw.

  4. Imtrot Says:

    Bob, i think you diminish what good argument you had by imposing your egotistical persecution complex on top of it. If you actually read back what you have wrote, you paraphrase from conversation with a young women as you left the meeting in which she says that “all SAlt meeting are like that”. Surely thus, the only logical and rational answer was that it wasn’t your presence there that limited discussion, but instead a more worrying complete lack of political discussion at their meetings. To reiterate that is the crux of the issue not your blown up sence of self importance.

  5. Bob Gould Says:

    Several people have commented on Leftwrites about my critique of Socialist Alternative’s 1968 meetings.

    Tony Hartin says my comments about Mick Armstrong’s prayer meetings are non-political and I should stick to the politics.

    Mick has just written a lengthy document raising the propaganda strategy of Socialist Alternative to the realms of high theory. Presumably Hartin thinks that Mick’s pamphlet is political, yet he objects to me subjecting the part of the practice of Socialist Alternative to political scrutiny in light of Mick’s theory.

    That’s the humbug you get from people who tend to regard the political orientation and practice of the current they favour as the centre of the political universe, and expect the rest of us to sit back and cop it without subjecting it to scrutiny and analysis.

    Several people have objected to me saying Socialist Alternative seems to be developing cult-like aspects. Apparently I’m not supposed to say that, or to describe the evidence I see of that, on the basis of my observations at the 1968 meeting.

    I’m sorry if those observations offend some adherents of Socialist Alternative, but they’re my observations. Readers of this list, some of whom would have had some experiences with Socialist Alternative, will just have to make their own assessments.

    Another commentator accuses me of self-importance. That’s as may be. We’re all a bit self-important when we comment on political topics. It’s a bit self-important to think that our observations and ideas matter.

    I think it’s extravagantly self-important for Mick to make a sweeping and rather general analysis of the events of 1968 and 1969 from his derived and literary point of view without allowing any framework for an interchange with me and perhaps others who may have attended his meetings elsewhere, who were participants in those events in Australia.

    What got up my nose at the meeting, and what drove home to me the emerging element of cultism inherent in Mick’s overblown propaganda perspective, was the semi-religious atmosphere that prevailed at the meeting, which was deliberately designed as an exercise in what some call symbolic politics.

    In that respect, given Chav’s assertion that no discussion was allowed at the Melbourne meeting either, May 1968 was turned into some kind of reified symbolic event from history to be interpreted strictly according to the theology of the St Pauls of the cult, in the way St Paul imposed his curious theology on the facts about the preceding primitive Christianity.

    Marxist politics, in its more useful forms, is not such an exercise at all. The creative element in it, best exemplified in the life of a figure such as Lenin, is debate, controversy, argument and struggle with the aim of developing and educating socialists for struggles at hand and ahead.

    The exaggerated closed-circle atmosphere revealed at that meeting seemed to be the antithesis of what’s required.

    Another commenter said I couldn’t dispute the right of Socialist Alternative to decide on the form of its meetings. Of course I don’t, just as I don’t object to the Hillsong Church running their revivals the way they do, but it’s incumbent on me as a socialist to make a sensible appraisal of the political and organisational implications of the way meetings are run, and that was the purpose of my observations.

    I repeat my proposal to Mick: let’s have a serious discussion about this type of propagandism, inviting all comers.

  6. Bob Gould Says:

    This discussion, which is mainly occuring on Leftwrites, is quite revealing about the attitude of people who inhabit the rather hermetically sealed world of Socialist Alternative.

    Overseas supporter Tony Hartin makes a declaration of faith that when he was around Socialist Alternative his life was highly political, and he had a whiff of nostalgia for it, obviously.

    I don’t like to be too tough on people, but if what I see of the political life of Socialist Alternative is comprehensive Leninist and socialist activity in the broader sense, I’m the man in the moon.

    It is the features of pure propagandism, now theorised by Mick, that tend to remove propaganda groups from any kind of concrete activity in the workers movement, other than occasional forays to give finger-wagging lectures of the sort that I described.

    Some of the SA supporters react to this kind of critique like a bunch of hornets. They develop a rather artificial theme about my pomposity and megalomania. I certainly do have a problem when I discuss socialist political activity because what I say is inevitably informed by the 50-plus years of my own activity, some of it effective, but which also includes quite a few political mistakes.

    I have no intention of not continuing to inform what I write about current socialist politics from my own experiences. This obviously irritates some people, who prefer to discuss socialist politics in a more abstract way.

    One of my intentions in raising this matter quite sharply arises from my own orientation. I favour public discussion of rational, concrete and theoretical sort between all the groups, formations and tendencies that can be roped in, directed possibly at some sort of eventual regroupment.

    In this my view differs from that of some friends and colleagues who have given up on the far left because of their own experiences. I don’t share that view. I don’t think you can jump over the few hundred mainly younger leftist in the small socialist groups, but rabid propagandism is a big obstacle to serious discussion based on the current balance of forces and conditions in the workers movement.

    I note that the statement of perspectives by the new RSP also mentions propagandism, happily in a slightly different way to Mick.

    In my view, permanent abstention from the workers movement by socialists is a political curse. I choose to describe Socialist Alternative rather brutally because, given the ruthless way the leaders of SA try to protect their ranks from contamination by the external world, that’s the only course available to me and these days, the web is a powerful way of reaching people, even the ranks of Socialist Alternative, who are discouraged by their leaders from talking to other socialists, except in the most combative way.

    Regarding myself as an old whippersnapper, to use Chav’s term, I’m determined to get some kind of political dialogue going with the young whippersnappers, and a sharp critique isn’t a bad way of beginning a political debate.

    Let the discussion continue!

    The old whippersnapper, Uncle Bob

  7. socrates Says:

    I have just came across the blog topic and its theme is of some interest to me. I have been to Socialist Alternative meetings and find these recent comments by Bob Gould very pertinent. Especially resonant to me was his view that SA currently resembles a political replica of Hillsong. I have studied the phenomenom of cults in the political sphere and have noticed many points of similarity between SA structure and behaviour and those of recognized cults both here and overseas.
    One feature of such groups is the drive to recruit young, often first year, University students who are particularly susceptible to the idealistic message of romanticized Marxism. Another feature is that these groups keep the juniour members unnaturally busy with magazine selling, stalls, postering and endless readings of selective Socialist texts. Another aspect is the propaganda level, in which there is no genuine desire or capacity to engage in serious debate, only repetitive regurgitation of historical positions and the self-sealing rhetoric of a closed group. The leadership will in fact discourage dissent from the other members. The last feature that marks such groups is that it appears to exist more for the benefit of the perceived status or ego of the charismatic (or non-charistmatic in this case) leader/leaders, rather than the goal of advancing the cause of workers or promoting real socialism.

  8. Bob Gould Says:

    On further consideration, in light of the discussion that has occurred here and on Leftwrites, I withdraw the world cult, applied to Socialist Alternative, in deference to the point made by several people that it’s rather uncomradely.

    Considering the question carefully I prefer to describe Socialist Alternative as a sect, with the implied possibility of the group developing into cultism, but clearly that question isn’t decided yet. Anyone interested in these problems should carefully read Mick’s pamphlet, which has some useful aspects despite the fact that – using the language he rather likes – it’s dead wrong on some important strategic questions.

    I intend to write a more rounded critique of the pamphlet, which is quite long. I rather like the fact that Mick has clearly done the research for the pamphlet himself, and the footnotes and references are in themselves quite valuable. He even mentions a serious biography of Dzerzhinsky that I’ve never seen but am now trying to track down.

    In this discussion, which I think is pretty useful, I’m not trying to win some kind of debate. I’m trying to present a different slant on things, particularly to the comrades of Socialist Alternative, who are pretty well unreachable except on the web.

    Some people question some of the details of my impression of the internal atmosphere in Socialist Alternative, but inevitably once a discussion like this starts, those who are in Socialist Alternative or who have passed through it, or other socialists, will consider the arguments in light of their own experiences. If my general description has something in it, it may have some impact, and if it’s a hopeless caricature it won’t.

    That’s for the readers and participants in the discussion to decide.

    I’ll leave most of my points for a more extended discussion of Mick’s pamphlet, but I will make a few general observations here on the style and atmosphere of Socialist Alternative.

    Garnet, who in my original post I described as the gloomy bloke, says he has never had a conversation with me. That’s certainly true. I’ve only ever been able to have a couple of very brief conversations with anyone in Socialist Alternative except Mick himself, and it hasn’t been for want of trying.

    I’m pretty well known for personal agitprop and deliberate political gregariousness. I’m also, as people know, a bit of a pamphleteer. I’ve had the rather amusing experience of trying to leaflet Socialist Alternative red-flag contingents at demonstrations and meeting with great hostility and reluctance to take my leaflets.

    This is the universal experience of other socialists attempting the same sort of thing. Clearly, the ranks of Socialist Alternative are trained in an exclusivist atmosphere and style, in which the only contact with other socialists, ideologically, is utterly polemical.

    Reflection and discussion of a more relaxed sort appears to be discouraged. Internally, other socialists are routinely described as sects, and Socialist Alternative is presented as the only genuine embryo party.

    Some of Chav’s contributions on Leftwrites exemplify this approach. He has defended the practice of calling the DSP Stalinist because of their quite complex position on Cuba, and some of the ranks of Socialist Alternative repeat that sort of thing in an even cruder way.

    A couple of times when slightly more adventurous members of SA have been in my shop to buy the the odd pamphlet that they couldn’t find elsewhere, I’ve had short discussions with them. Recently, one young woman, when I initiated a discussion, said “you’re the bloke who wrote the thing attacking us about being on the other side of the road on election day”. She obviously hadn’t read it, but had heard about it.

    I tried my hand at a bit of a public critique of propagandism, but she tired of that in about 30 seconds and said she didn’t have the time to talk and had to go to see contacts. The mind boggles at who the contacts might be and what she told them, but I’d wager that it consisted of selling the latest magazine and trying to get people to the next propaganda meeting.

    Tom has made an observation about my political activity and how it measures up against that of Socialist Alternative. For the past couple of months I’ve been up to my ears in the battle against electricity privatisation in the Labor Party and the community at large.

    I’ve been trying to harden up the opposition at meetings of the left, leafleting the state conference, participating in the rank and file activities and trying to help turn the agitation outward into the community.

    I’ve helped to organise some public meetings, and I’ve worked on a couple of lobbies and participated in a number of stalls in shopping centres.

    Socialist Alternative has been present on a few occasions in this agitation: at a public meeting in Alexandria, at one of the Stop the Sell-off Campaign’s open meetings, and at the union-organised stopwork and protest at the opening of parliament.

    Their verbal intervention at the meetings consisted of the simple, timeless, and not always correct, proposition that electricity privatisation would only be defeated by mass industrial action. Socialist Alternative was also present at the May Day protest outside the Labor Party state conference in early May.

    They didn’t appear to have any specific leaflet on electricity privatisation. They were just selling their magazine and bizarrely, to my mind, they pretty well ignored the 800 or so delegates and 300 or 400 Labor rank and filers attending the conference.

    By way of contrast, I got there about 7am, and I and three comrades leafleted the Labor conference participants, and later the May Day crowd as it assembled. Altogether we handed out about 1800 leaflets.

    There was the conference, there were the 30 or 40 Socialist Alternative people with their red flags, and they ignored the conference. Socialist Alternative’s behaviour on that day appeared to me like the distilled essence of propagandism.

    Finally, the question of shepherding. I don’t know the detail of other cities, but I’m pretty sure it’s similar. Younger members of Socialist Alternative who go anywhere in the political world seem to be carefully shepherded by older members.

    One of the reasons you don’t see too many SA interventions in other areas is probably that there aren’t enough older members to go around, and it’s regarded as highly dangerous to let the younger members wander around other political people without a shepherd.

    A further development of my observations on SA’s practice will have to wait on my critique of Mick’s pamphlet and its political implications.

  9. Antigone Says:

    It has to be good to have a discussion about the internal culture, forms of organisation and leadership of far left organisations in Australia, the major currents of which date back at least four decades. Many current sect (an objective description) members would disagree that a public discussion is either necessary or good, for obvious but self-interested and short-sighted reasons. But their repeated failure to address or deal with the problems arising from their sectarian organisation will always made such a discussion necessary and inevitable.

    The idiocy and self-defeating nature of the hatred of all other groups across the left spectrum, a hatred deliberately cultivated and highlighted at the point of recruitment, is perhaps the most formative, initiatory experience all new recruits undergo – to very unfortunate long term effects. Perhaps the worst long term effect is on the worldview and political outlook of that vast majority of people constituting ex-members.

    As a former member of the SWP/DSP, I find the testimony of other former members of far left groups who are still leftists precious and poignant. I commend the intellectual honesty which interestingly enough has overwhelmingly come in the discussion here and on Leftwrites from current and former members from the ISO tradition, though the sentiments and observations are I know shared by most ex-members of the SWP-DSP during the same time-frame – i.e. four decades.

    On the question as to whether such groups do more harm than good it gives me no joy whatsoever to say that I believe they do more harm than good in the long run if the criteria is effects on left politial outcomes and on the people who have built these organisations from the ground.

    Doris Lessing was the first (I think) to comment that ex-members of left political groups tend to not only drop out of politics altogether, if they don’t go to the right, but also typically thereafter abhor the notion of any sort of community activism whatsoever. This has certainly been my direct observation of most former members.

    I don’t have any dot point solutions to this but I think recognising the problem and proactively trying to address it and its obvious manifestations are basic. So too, is bearing witness. The personal is political, though many leftists never got that and still haven’t which is also obvious from this discussion, but then feminism was always an opportunistic add-on in male-dominated left politics too.

  10. Darren Says:

    “On the question of sheperding”, I’d say that the dynamic is not quite so sinister. Four years ago I was an older member of SA so any sheperding going on I wouldn’t of seen. (and I certainly didn’t shepered anyone.)
    But as a young man I was a member of the International Socialists, (Before they were ISO) Also under the leadership of Mick. This was a very sectarian and insular group and in fact this period in IST history is known (with some shame, but also amusement) as the Gung-ho period.

    At the time I insisted on going to other meetings, such as the Defend the Unions Committee. Leading members tried to discourage me from doing so, but I was never given a shepered. In fact, I was given no suport at all.

    In the case of the sheperding that Bob says he has witnessed, I suspect that the idea of going along to the event was not that of the young comrade, but of the SA leadership trying to inervine in the struggle. The young comrade is there to gain experience.

    If this is the case, it should be welcomed that SA is trying to involve its self. Whatever else you may say about SA and their “narrow propagandism,” their oriantation is based on one fundamental truth; that small socialist groups can have fuck all effect on the wider class struggle. The point of intervention, therefore is not to effect the class struggle, but to maintain an interface with it. Without which, the group will (and has) become weird.

  11. Michael Connors Says:

    As a former member of the IS (to which the current SA has its origins) none of the events described above suprise me. They are quite mild, if anything. You are but scratching on the surface.

    I can recall that it was my duty at some meetings to ensure that new or vulnerable members would be surrounded by loyal members at meetings to ensure swampy elements (the rest of the left) didn’t contaminate. There was no limit to this routine. Members living in share houses would inform branch executives that unsavourable elements were visiting. Soon enough a nominated comrade would arrive to ensure politics were kept on the straight and narrow. We felt we were doing our duty. God knows what we would have been capable of in a different era.

    All members of sects have some self-responsibility. The issue is not one person, or a cult of leadership, but a willingness on the part of the member to submit to very unlikely embodiments of left-mysticism. I only have myself to blame for being part of that madness.

    While I have my gripes with the old IS leadership, the fact is that I was the author of my own misforturne, I was the dogmatic hack eager to prove my worth to my revolutionary leaders. For some reason I viewed them with unestimable esteem. I was young.

    There are many tales to tell of life in a sect, but there is only one way to allow young people on the left to know about it, and that is to live through it and hope that they come out remaining committed to some idea of democratic socialism. The standard life of the member who commits is around 2-5 years (after you leave your life is over for a while). Hopefully they come out with various skills and keep up the fight.

    Maybe a book on sect life would be fun, a way of explaining the traps set by gurus and by one’s own wish to be part of something. By the way, the propaganda group routine has all been done before – it was the rationale for the insular body that the IS became in the late 1980s, when branch minutes and finances were no longer necessary, and when private lives were discussed at branch meetings and various strategies were laid out to ensure continued membership.

    I finally left the IS when I was told I shouldn’t attend any more ACT UP meetings because I wasn’t recruiting anyone or selling papers (ACT UP was the leading AIDS activist group in Melbourne). The highlights of activism in my life were environmental (Franklin and Daintree Blockades) and ACT UP. We made a difference. My time in the sect left was a squandered time, but oddly I learned a lot.

  12. Red Wedge Says:

    I too enjoyed membership of IS tendency groups, in the early to mid-nineties. I got a bit excited when Socialist Alternative split from the ISO, as I saw an opportunity for a group of dedicated activists to break away from the sectish introversion of a tendency which had become quite mad.

    The ISO at the time was embarking on great expansion plans, with branches in the suburbs and enormous pressure exerted on members to “build”, recruit and sell papers, based on a “thirties-in-slow-motion” fantasy. Sadly, the recession years lead not to revolutionary upheavals, but the victory of Howard, the rise of Hansonism, and the continued struggle for relevance of tiny left groups. Membership of the ISO imploded in the mid-nineties, and when large chunks of the existing cadre were expelled for heresy or disobedience, the SA was born.

    Opportunely, the majority of the best activists, particularly in Melbourne, lead this charge out of the ISO, and with them a fairly good apparatus, in terms of access to materiel like publishing and printing, as well as personal networks. However, it became clear that the split posed more of a Social Alternative for many disillusioned with the poisonous sectarianism of the ISO, rather than any real attempt to dispense with its forms.

    Over the years, it has been faintly amusing to observe, from afar, the various splits and other woes that have continued to plague this group that now resembles, in many ways, that of their old foes, the Sparticists. Inhabiting many absolute positions (such as principled support for Labor in all elections -“the rope supporting the hanging man”-, to involvement with the ill-fated Socialist Alliance and revolutionary parliamentarism, and now support for the new social democracy represented in The Greens) while struggling to maintain class relevance.

    Sadly, the tendency has had history of alienating good activists from revolutionary socialism while wasting the energies of its (often earnest and willing) revolving membership. This is the price of the pursuit of pure propagandism, whether dressed up as “High Theory” or in more quasi-agitational garb. Relevance to class politics can only exist where there is a relationship with the class, which requires entry into existing organisations, chiefly the unions, but also other activist forums.

    Dressing up party rallies as “meetings” or “forums”, and keeping members focused on “building” and paper sales, do not advance this kind of engagement, but do reinforce the groupthink of the sect. Activities such as cadre shepherding, corralling comrades in group homes or overt bullying are just signs of ovine desperation, really.

  13. Bob Gould Says:

    It’s of some interest that the discussion of this topic on Leftwrites has had 130 contributions. I think it’s likely that a large number of people, in the IS tradition in particular, have read a lot of this exchange. I’ve had hints, but no solid evidence, that this includes the membership of Socialist Alternative, despite the vigorous attempts of the SA leadership to insulate them from external discussion.

    It’s striking, still, that in a discussion like this, none of the central leaders of Socialist Alternative have seen fit to participate in any meaningful way. One might have expected a more rounded statement of Socialist Alternative’s propaganda perspective.

    Socialist Alternative has left its resident commissar for Leftwrites, Chav, and a couple of relatively loyal ex-members such as Dave Latham, to carry the can.

    I make no apology for the way I kicked off this discussion. It has become de rigeuer to attack me for the supposedly uncomradely tone of the initial post, but any serious reflection invites the unanswerable point that my mickey taking at Mick Armstrong’s expense is dwarfed by the ferociously uncomradely internal rhetoric about other groups and socialists inside Socialist Alternative.

    Chav’s interventions provide a good flavour of the way the views of other socialists are treated inside Socialist Alternative.

    At least my initial post got the attention of a lot of people in and around Socialist Alternative, which was my political intention. It’s a bit rich, really, considering the constant, belligerent hostility of the Socialist Alternative leaders to pretty well all other leftists, for the junior representatives and political attorneys of that organisation to whinge about the tone of the discussion.

    In fact, the Socialist Alternative leaders don’t want any discussion at all unless they have total control of the framework of the discussion.

    In the past 30 or 40 posts, the discussion has polarised between the Socialist Alternative view and the views of others who have been rather badly burnt by propaganda groups, who mostly reject the idea of independent socialist organisation. I reject Socialist Alternative’s view and I’m still working on another article contesting Mick’s views, based on a critique of his pamphlet about the acorns.

    I also reject the other view, although I understand the considerable irritation and pain felt by people who’ve been through the propaganda group mincer. Such groups are great destroyers of activists and cadres.

    Independent socialist organisation is still a burning necessity but the form of it has to take account of past errors.

    My view is that none of the socialist groups, or the groups and individuals with a socialist orientation working in the Greens, the Labor Party and the anarchist movement, have any possibility in the real world of eclipsing each other by a process of individual recruitment to the particular group, denouncing all others.

    What we really face is a period of public discussion among socialists with a minimum of exclusions, directed towards a rational regroupment of socialist forces.

    To this end, I have very modest proposal. What’s to prevent us all holding some kind of socialist day school on a Sunday in the major cities: say Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth initially? In a carefully organised way, with plenty of discussion from the floor, the different point of view could be put. Just one day of prepared discussion on socialist organisation and history, possibly with written contributions beforehand.

    Such discussion could include Socialist Alternative, Solidarity, the DSP and RSP, the Socialist Party, representatives of the anarcho syndicalists, socialists working in the Labor Party, the Greens and the trade union movement, and even smaller groups in cities where they exist.

    Such a serious discussion might just be the beginning of a useful clarification of ideas and orientations. The deal should be that the groups that agree to speak should make a serious effort to get their members along.

    That’s my modest proposal. What do people think?

  14. Bob Gould Says:

    As discussion on this topic is still proceeding on Leftwrites, I want to make a few additional observations, without prejudice to my major critique of Mick Armstrong’s pamphlet on propagandism, which I hope to publish in a couple of weeks.

    My aim in my first contribution was rather empirical. I wanted to puncture the closed circle atmosphere and the politically ignorant triumphalism surrounding Socialist Alternative and to sound a note of warning against narrow-minded propagandism in general, which is the besetting sin of most far-left groups.

    For years I’ve been beating the drum for a big public discussion on the far left about strategy and tactics in the workers movement and about what socialism might look like after the defeat of Stalinism.

    I was trying to provoke a discussion mainly among those still in some way committed to the socialist project, however we may need to revise it. From my point of view there are no socialist sacred cows.

    I was also conscious that we live in a time when the prevailing political atmosphere is anti-socialist and the whole ideological apparatus of the ruling class is directed at demolishing the very idea of socialism and trying to eliminate even the memory of past independent class movements by pushing the whole of the trade union and labour movements to the right.

    I’m interested in defending the better traditions of the labour movement and the working class movement against this relentless ideological assault of the bourgeoisie.

    On Ozleft we’ve gone to some pains to put up all kinds of documents and historical pieces to do with past struggles of the workers movement, which I don’t regard in the ultimatist and insulting way that many on the far left do.

    It’s important to defend the conquests and past activities of the workers movement while at the same time criticising them from the point of view of accumulated historical experience.

    Overt ideological assaults on the working class tradition, combined with attempts to demobilise the working class, are hardly new. I came into politics in the early 1950s, a period of reaction in Australia, and I’ve seen plenty of ebbs and flows since then.

    The political explosion in which I participated in the mid-1950s was the beginning of the end for high Stalinism and produced a political milieu the right wing of which rapidly lost interest in working class politics after their Stalinist illusions were shattered. I and others were part of the minority left wing of that critical milieu.

    I’m reminded of the fact that Lenin, in 1915 in Switzerland, trying to educate groups of young Swiss, German and Austrian socialists, observed that while the socialist revolution might eventually come, he probably wouldn’t live to see it. Yet a mere three years later he and the Bolsheviks were in power in one third of the world.

    The critical left wing of the 1950s was a minority, but it was a good training ground for the 1960s. By the end of the 1960s there was a rebirth of interest in socialist ideas, forged in the crucible of the struggle against the Vietnam war.

    Small groups of socialists, trained in adverse times (in a non-sectarian spirit, at least in Sydney), were for a time in the vanguard of many tens of thousands of people in the mid and late 1960s. In the mobilisations against the Vietnam War, the activities of small minorities of socialists were a very large factor.

    In a way, this produced other political problems, but the mantra being developed by people on the right of the current political discussion, such as Dennis and others, that Trotskyists have never amounted to a row of beans, is extraordinarily ahistorical.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, it seems likely to me that a broad range of groups and individuals originating in the left opposition to Stalinism will in a few years be the only Marxian socialists left.

    It also seems likely to me that by then the broad public and the oppressed will be interested in Marxist and socialist ideas.

    Some of my friends accuse me of being an incorrigible optimists, but I think it’s highly likely that in the absence of something totally new being invented, and how it would be invented I can’t imagine, that the crises inherent in the capitalist system, particularly right now, will lead to increased interest in Marxist and socialist ideas.

    This is the only context in which it’s possible to explain the international mantra of ruling class ideologues who want to exorcise the spectre of the year 1968, and if possible abolish it from the political calendar.

    As an old socialist militant whose knowledge and horizons have continued to expand through 50-plus years of political activity and reading, and I don’t think I’m naive.

    A couple of years ago I read On the Edge, the book that Dennis Tourish wrote jointly with Tim Wohlforth, and I’ve read Tim Wohlforth’s autobiography and other books of experiences in the workers’ and socialist movements.

    It’s clear from On the Edge and Dennis’s contributions to this discussion that he has given up on the socialist project, as I would understand it.

    In the book, Tourish and Wohlforth sometimes get carried away by a fairly normal temptation to caricature their opponents, particularly Ted Grant. (It would be difficult to caricature Gerry Healy because the real phenomenon was actually larger than the life of any caricature.)

    When I have a go in a critical way at the cultish possibilities of some types of socialist organisation I make no apology for that, and in fact make use of the writings of Tourish, Wohlforth and others on such matters. It’s of little value to shoot the messenger, even if you disagree with him or her on some matters.

    I also think, from a broad socialist point of view, it’s reasonable and useful to discuss the psychological factors that operate in socialist groups. Socialists who remain ignorant of psychological questions are politically disarming themselves.

    It’s worth noting that when Zinoviev, under Lenin’s tutelage, was trying to come to terms with the bureaucratisation of the European socialist movement after the 1914 collapse into chauvinism, he made considerable use of Robert Michel’s seminal piece of critical sociology, European Social Democracy (Political Parties). This was independent of the fact that Michel’s critique was politicially from the right.

    Lenin had no time for shooting the messenger. There’s nothing wrong with having an argument or discussion with people who’ve given up on the socialist project, but my main interest is to induce a serious, and very overdue, discussion among those still in some way committed to class struggle and the socialist project.

    I’m particularly interested in reaching younger socialists to help shake them out of their petty bourgeois complacency.

    I’m willing to be quite polite to those who’ve given it all away, but for clarity of discussion it would be useful to get some kind of idea from some of the more enigmatic contributors as to where they stand on the broad strategic questions.

    I’d like to know, from people such as Dennis, Maria and a few others, where they stand on three or four broad questions:

    1. Is some class-based socialist project, however revised and improved, still a valid proposition, from your point of view?

    2. Does the class struggle still exist?

    3. Is the concrete struggle against the imperialist power of the main capitalist metropolitan powers still a desirable project?

    4. Is a broad defence of the good aspects of the traditions of the workers and socialist movements still desirable?

    For my part, no matter how sectarian and insular the adherents of some of the socialist groups may be, they’re still my comrades from a broad historical point of view, even if they’re comrades I would like to take by the scruff of the neck and shake out of their idiot, philistine complacency.

    To people who don’t in sense agree with the four issues I’ve outlined, I still have plenty to say in a civilised way, but I don’t have a great deal of interest in them as political activists.

  15. JO Says:

    Bob’s questions are inherently sectarian and I’d wager would be answered either in the negative or with non-comprehension or misapprehension by the vast majority of progressive or potentially progressive people in Australia or the entire world.

    Secondly, whether any one answers them either in the affirmative or the negative is irrelevant to the valid criticisms they may make of sectarianism or cultism in far left political organisations.

  16. Bob Gould Says:

    Wombo’s contributions on Leftwrites to this discussion are classic expressions of the propaganda of the DSP majority. Wombo and his associates are not very interested in any discussion of the methodological issues raised concerning socialist activity, they just use every website discussion as an opportunity to throw a bit of abuse at their various opponents on the left and to give us all an extensive lecture incorporating the completely fantastic Potemkin Village story about the DSP majority and the Socialist Alliance.

    The difficulty with Wombo’s formulaic propaganda is that literally no one outside DSP and Socialist Alliance circles believes any of it. In the various cities other people on the left who encounter the DSP can see for themselves how fantastic these assertions are.

    Wombo claims the Socialist Alliance has 700 members nationally. A while back they were claiming 2000, and both claims are equally fantastic.

    A while ago the Socialist Alliance may have had 2000 people who signed a bit of paper to help get the organisation registered for electoral purposes, and now only 700 will do that.

    To claim that the 2000 or the 700 are in any real sense members of anything is obvious nonsense, and everyone active on the left can see that’s the case, judging by the tiny numbers the DSP mobilises anywhere for anything.

    Yet Wombo keeps belting out this stuff as if there might be someone out there who will accept his story as good coin. I don’t know why he bothers.

    He keeps talking about the Socialist Alliance as some kind of alliance when it’s clearly not. The DSP majority has driven out all the other affiliates while trying to blame them for being driven out. The DSP majority has also driven out most of the independent-minded people who initially joined the alliance – three waves of them, in fact.

    This DSP majority propaganda has been punctured at length by many people, in particular the minority expelled by the DSP majority.

    The interesting thing about Wombo’s intervention is that he’s actually defending the propagandism of the group with which the DSP majority is now most closely allied, Socialist Alternative.

    A pragmatic alliance between the DSP leadership and the Socialist Alternative leadership has been quite apparent in Sydney for nearly a year, since the time of the big mass meeting preparing the tactics for the APEC protests, where much to their surprise the DSP and Socialist Alternative leaderships lost the vote at the 600-strong meeting even after stacking it with every available member of both groups from all over Australia.

    The ordinary activists in different spheres voted overwhelmingly against the DSP-Socialist Alternative bloc after a lengthy discussion on tactics. (I went to that meeting intending to vote against anything too extravagant in the way of tactics, given the difficult circumstances, but I was persuaded to change my vote by the argument at the meeting. The people proposing a slightly more militant approach to the protest seemed slightly more careful in their formulation, and the sheer size of the meeting convinced me something more militant was needed to avert the possibility of a wild and unnecessary total confrontation with the cops. The DSP and Socialist Alternative leaderships were inflexible. They had made their decision to ram their view through, and they took very unkindly to the decision of the meeting.)

    Wombo makes some tendentious assertions about events in a couple of spheres of activity, attacking Solidarity for alleged sectarianism and other crimes.

    In the absence of any comprehensive argument it must be said that he’s making slanderous assertions.

    Wombo makes sweeping allegations about Solidarity concerning some differences in the indigenous agitation against the Northern Territory intervention, in particular. He doesn’t, however, give any background, just his mantra: DSP-Socialist Alternative good, Solidarity and others bad.

    I’ve made some inquiries with people involved in this agitation and Wombo’s story is a travesty of the real circumstances.

    In fact, a conflict erupted in indigenous circles between a couple of families who are well known in Sydney, on the one hand, and a large number of younger indigenous activists on the other.

    Such conflicts are not uncommon in among indigenous political activists. According to my informants, not all of whom are in Solidarity, the younger activists are actually a larger group than the two families.

    Forced to choose by the circumstances developing around them, the Solidarity people and the student independents went with the group of younger activists, while the DSP and Socialist Alternative leaderships stuck with the two families.

    I have no strong views on the right tactics for non-indigenous rebels in this situation. Considerable experience in Sydney over many years has taught me there’s no mileage at all for non-indigenous socialists being factional in conflicts in indigenous politics.

    Wombo’s highly emotive account of this conflict is just another variant of his mantra: DSP-Socialist Alternative good, everyone else bad.

    It’s fairly easy to see why this bloc has emerged in Sydney between the DSP leadership and the Socialist Alternative leadership. They’re in no sense competitors, as the DSP an electoralist formation with little student activity and influence, and Socialist Alternative is mainly a student organisation.

    The two leaderships appear to think that by throwing their collective weight around in movement activities they can blow all competitors out of the water.

    That’s a complete mis-estimate of the political situation.

  17. Norm Dixon Says:

    Socialist Alternative gets the balance wrong on propaganda and action | Links

    Reviewed by *Ben Courtice*

    */From Little Things Big Things Grow: strategies for building
    revolutionary socialist organisations/*, by Mick Armstrong, Socialist Alternative, 2007.

    /As official politics continues to move to the right, a growing gulf is
    opening up between the hopes and aspirations of millions of working people and the agenda of the ruling capitalist establishment and its parties… Much of the time that disenchantment and discontent finds no outlet, but then it explodes in massive mobilisations like those against the outbreak of the Iraq war in 2003, or the repeated giant rallies against Howard’s WorkChoices/.[i]

    Thus Mick Armstrong of Socialist Alternative[ii] sets the scene in the
    introduction to his survey of strategic considerations of how a socialist group should organise.

    Full http://links.org.au/node/546

  18. That Lumpen Says:

    I have friends in SAlt- several- who have told me that they are not allowed to talk to me when they are either selling their magazine or conducting a stall… at some point someone decided that i was beyond recruit, and the ‘law’ thus decreed me a waste of attention that could otherwise be spidering-in new contacts and recruits. Although my SAlt friends still do, albeit somewhat nervously, talk to me when at a stall… if only briefly. But i have noticed their reluctance to do this especially before the gaze of a proximate Mick. Has sir Mick deemed that all social relations, when a member has in hand a magazine, or is behind a stall, must be reified beneath a use-value: the interlocutor’s potential to become a vehicle for the extension of SAlt membership? Things become somewhat insidious when the task of building an organisation is not based upon friendships formed in a shared experience of struggle, but rather recruiting for the sake of recruiting exponentially. The reason why i never joined SAlt is because i believed it important to independently understand the history of labour struggles and movements, such that i could make an informed choice regarding the particular contemporary analyses and approaches of various leftist organisations and ideologies. Having done this, i will never join SAlt. I could never fathom how anyone could leap into a revolutionary organisation without such knowledge, knowledge necessary for any rational decision, for becoming a revolutionary is no small deal. When an organisation succinctly focuses upon recruiting from, say, predominantly first year university students who have very little understanding of the diverse approaches historically and presently taken by the left, times must be extraordinarily rough for the left in general, or else that organisation must be particularly opportunistic.

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