Strategy and tactics in the labour movement
The discussion in Marxmail on strategy and tactics in the labour movement is revealing and useful and has gone in a number of directions. There are three broad strands of opinion in conflict, and the historical context is important, because all three strands, including my own, appeal to the authority of Lenin in support of their current tactical views.
In my view, Phillip Ferguson and the Revolutionary Communist Group in Britain are part of a distinct current of opinion in the socialist movement — what I would describe as principled sectarianism. This current that has a long lineage, back to the Council Communists, with whom Lenin argued, and in the US, to Daniel De Leon.
This modern school includes the RCG, Phillip Ferguson’s group, two currents of left communists and Bordigists who publish magazines in western Europe (largely arguing with each other), the LM-RCP group in Britain, the Socialist Equality Party and the Spartacist League. In this ultimatist political universe, there are only The Marxists (the particular group involved), fighting against all the bourgeois forces in society, which is everybody else in society. These bourgeois forces, particularly include all existing workers’ organisations and their leaderships.
To these maximalist groupings, the sociology of existing workers’ organisations and their supporters is unimportant.
My careful exposition of the current sociology of workers’ organisations is not going to have much impact there, but nevertheless the discussion between us has some value. As Jurriaan Bendien points out, concerning Phil Ferguson, many of these groups reject entirely any struggle for reforms, on the grounds that reforms integrate the working class into capitalism. A number of these groups, in particular, denounce trade unions and trade unionism as integrating the working class into the system. In their universe, the only task is propaganda for the socialist revolution.
James P. Cannon, in his inimitable agitator’s way, had a famous funny story about this kind of formation. After the Trotskyists were thrown out of the Communist Party in the US, they got an indirect message from a group of the old underground faction of the Communist Party in Boston, who said in their message that they agreed with the program of the Trotskyists. Cannon went up to Boston to talk to them. After much discussion, the undergrounders appeared to agree with the Trotskyist program. Then the undergrounders’ leader said there was just one condition, of course: the new party must be totally underground and have nothing to do with bourgeois parliaments and parliamentarism. Cannon said he cracked a few little jokes, put on his hat and went home. Cannon’s attitude towards the undergrounders is pretty much my attitude towards the maximalist tradition. Some of their ideas are of some value in a formal way, but no revolutionary socialist movement can be constructed in that spirit.
The DSP and Jose Perez are a different proposition. They are not principled maximalist ultraleftists. In this discussion, for what appear to be demagogic reasons they use in an instrumentalist way arguments drawn from maximalist ultraleftism to attack the leaderships, the middle ranks and the supporters of traditional workers’ organisations, and the organisations themselves as institutions. They use this polemical stance to separate themselves from any relationship with these traditional workers’ organisations and to justify a non-class politics, in which no significant class difference is recognised between the universe of the existing workers’ organisations, on the one hand, and the outright capitalist political parties on the other.
For instance, Jose believes there’s no essential difference between intervening in the crisis of a mass reformist organisation (in which the unions are dominant) and calling for a vote for a particular candidate in a US Democratic Party primary. In Australia the DSP fights hard to get Malcolm Fraser, the former Tory prime minister, as a main speaker on an antiwar platform and ridicules the traditional distinction made by Trotsky between workers’ fronts and people’s fronts.
Ben Courtice, who I know and respect, as a hard-working DSP activist with serious theoretical interests, uses ultraleft arguments and formulations drawn, for polemical purposes, from the maximalist school, but the practice of his own organisation has another dimension of an opportunist character. It’s important in this discussion to keep in mind the three distinct current that exist in these matters: what can be reasonably described as the Bob Gould-Richard Price current, the DSP current, and the traditional ultraleft current, represented in such an articulate way by Phillip Ferguson.
I don’t want to be pejorative about these classifications because people in all three currents are serious activists who believe certain things for a number of reasons, (for instance while I disagree with the ultraleft current, from time to time they produce very useful things, I don’t like the Spartacists much, but their lengthy discussion of Trotsky, Zinoviev and the German Communists in 1923 is useful work, and the Prometheus Books edition of the unpublished early work of Cannon, when he was a leader of the CP is a valuable research tool).
Reclaiming Lenin from the “Leninists”
For a large part of my 50 years of political life I’ve been hopelessly out of fashion, so to speak. I’m not impressed in the slightest with the current attempts of the bourgeoisie to bury Lenin politically, of which the latest example is the misanthropic Martin Amis. In my view, any intelligent approach to socialist and Marxist politics inevitably starts with Lenin.
In the first part of this contribution I intend to rely on my understanding of the thought and spirit of Lenin’s political activity, and it seems useful to me to recommend some sources. Firstly, Lenin’s own work, and secondly some books about Lenin and Leninism: one is Leninism Under Lenin by Marcel Leibman (I actually produced an article by Leibman on the committeemen out of Monthly Review as a small pamphlet during my rancorous split with the Percy brothers in 1970, and I still have copies of that pamphlet for sale).
Paul Leblanc’s book is also of great importance. A third book I would recommend is Lenin, the Novel by Alan Brien. I would also recommend the very serious political biography of Lenin by the anti-communist Robert Service, because while it’s antagonistic to Lenin, it’s a useful biography by the sort of political opponent from whom one can learn. In this category also is the relatively recent book edited by the arch-reactionary Richard Pipes, The Unknown Lenin, a collection of previously suppressed material from the Soviet archives selected by Pipes because he considers it embarrassing to Lenin. These documents, properly assessed, are of considerable value to serious students of Lenin because they give some further insight into the dialectical character of Lenin’s thought and practice. Also useful to a serious study of Lenin are the collection Not by Politics Alone: the Other Lenin edited by Tamara Deutscher, Lenin’s Last Struggle by Moshe Lewin and T.H. Rigby’s important book on Lenin’s Sovnarkom, which gives a vital insight into Lenin’s energy, efficiency and ingenuity as a government leader and administrator.
A small pamphlet by Mick Armstrong and Marc Newman of Socialist Alternative in Australia and the recent posting on Marxmail Lenin in Context are also useful.
Most of the Stalinist literature about Lenin is of no use, and Zinoviev’s Lenin hagiography about building the Bolshevik Party, is of limited use because it tailors its description of the actual practice of Lenin to an idealised model useful to the developing bureaucracy in the Soviet Union under the triumvirate. Tony Cliff’s Lenin volumes suffer a bit from Cliff bending the stick a bit too far to create an idealised picture of what the Bolshevik party was actually like.
It’s also important to at least have a look at Volume 38 of Lenin’s Collected Works, in which Lenin develops his view of Marxist philosophy, but as this is pretty dense it can be approached via Raya Danayevska’s or Cliff Slaughter’s introductions to this material.
The ultraleft current leans heavily on the over-used rhetorical flourish used by Lenin in attempting to persuade reluctant ultralefts to intervene in the crisis of Socialist Democracy: “support Labour like the rope supports a hanging man”. At about the same time Lenin was sending sharply worded notes to the British Communists urging them to spend money on a large scale and act as election agents trying to get Ramsay McDonald’s Labourites elected in Britain.
It’s important to actually look at the evolution of Lenin’s ideas and tactical recommendations. As Marx used to say “history is whole cloth”. A useful article in the book, Lenin on Britain, (Russian Foreign Language Publishers) Preface to the Russian translation of letters by Engels, Marx and others to F.A. Sorge, informs us about Lenin’s attitude towards strategy and tactics in workers’ organisations, and his understanding of the attitude of Marx and Engels to these organisations.
This article underlines the point that, in Lenin’s understanding, Marx and Engels opposed small groups of socialists setting themselves deliberately outside large workers’ movements. It was important to defend the full program of Marxism but it was also important for socialists to soak themselves in the bigger workers’ movements and attempt to lead and influence them.
This spirit pervaded all of Lenin’s subsequent attitude to labour parties in Britain, the US, and by inference, Australia.
After the massive betrayal of the leadership of Social Democracy in 1914, Lenin and the Bolsheviks attempted a serious analysis of the deep causes and circumstances of this betrayal, and this is the context in which Zinoviev wrote the useful pamphlet, which the DSP has reproduced for educational purposes, and this is also the context in which Lenin wrote the Split in Socialism to which Ben Courtice refers.
This was an attempt by Lenin and Zinoviev to analyse the sociology of the workers movements in the imperialist countries up to that time. Some modern Marxists have the view that even at this time Lenin and Zinoviev overstated the significance of the labour aristocracy. Certainly, the Bolsheviks in the 1920s made a realistic balance sheet of the relationship of forces in the workers’ movement, and concluded, at the early congresses of the Comintern, that the mass reformist parties based on the trade unions in Britain and Australia, still had pretty well total hegemony in the workers’ movements of those countries. From this flowed a united front strategy towards those mass workers’ organisations, despite their reactionary leaderships, and — without spelling it out too clearly for tactical reasons — the need to do serious socialist work inside those organisations.
The book Left Wing Communism, and Lenin’s and Trotsky’s speeches to the early Comintern congresses, remained the general understanding of Marxists on these questions, until the monstrous Third Period strategy was imposed by Stalin as part of the degeneration of the Comintern.
In the 1930s Trotsky returned to these questions with his deliberate and repeated advice to the British Trotskyists to adopt an entry tactic in the British Labour Party, and this tactical recommendation was also based on a realistic appraisal of the disproportionate nature of the forces involved, the Labour Party being an enormous, sociologically proletarian organisation, based on the unions, by comparison with which the British Communists were a small sect and the British Trotskyists a tiny sect.
These kinds of tactical judgments, based on a realistic appraisal of the relationship of forces in the workers’ movement was what dictated the tactic of entrism adopted by a big majority of Trotskyists of all currents in Britain and Australia in the post-war period.
Throughout the 1930s, the 1940s and the 1950s, the US Trotskyists, consistently advocated the formation in the United States of a labour party similar to those in Britain and Australia, based on the affiliation of the trade unions.
They advocated the formation of such a labour party despite its inevitable initial domination by reformism, as a necessary first stage in independent, working-class development.
This tactic of the united front towards mass labour parties based on the unions, such as exist in Britain and Australia, thus has an honourable, proud and defensible Marxist-Leninist proletarian lineage.
The formulation adopted by the Australian DSP, for instance, in the pamphlet, Revolutionary Strategy and Tactics in the Trade Unions (1983), is a useful summary of this strategic view. On pages 43 and 44, it says:
“In Australia, the fight to transform the unions into revolutionary instruments, must be waged in the Australian Labor Party, as well as in the unions themselves. In its form of organisation, the ALP is the party of the trade unions; in the content of its program and actions, it is the political expression of the union bureaucracy. The unions cannot become revolutionary instruments of the proletariat while the majority of the proletariat remains politically subordinate to the bourgeois program of the ALP.
“In general, however, revolutionaries favour union affiliation to the ALP, while that party continues to have the allegiance of the big majority of the working class. The spurious ideal of trade union ‘independence’ in politics is not a break with the bourgeois program of the ALP. It is a break with what is progressive in the Labor Party: the understanding that the proletariat requires its own political party, separate from and opposed to the parties of the capitalists.
“It is impossible for the unions to be independent of politics. Either they adopt proletarian politics or they support, actively or passively, bourgeois politics. Thus the task at present is not to break the organisational links between the unions and the ALP; the task is to break the unions from their subordination to the bourgeois politics of class collaboration, whether in the form of the ALP program or the daily practice of the union bureaucracy.
“Revolutionary propaganda therefore argues for union involvement in and control of the activities of the Labor Party, not to reinforce the status quo but as part of a fight to end the ALP’s subordination to the interests of capital, to change it from a political instrument of the union bureaucracy to a political instrument of proletarian militants.
“It is only along this line of simultaneous struggle against the agents of the bourgeoisie, in the unions and in the Labor Party, that the revolutionary party can increase its own influence, correctly orient the class struggle left wing as it arises, and win the real leadership of the organised and unorganised proletariat.”
When the DSP dumped the old “Trotskyism” in 1984, and made some moves in the direction of Stalinism, it also ditched this analysis. In the 1995 reprint of the pamphlet, Doug Lorimer has this piece of slightly dishonest mumbo-jumbo, as an explanation for the DSP’s new line:
“The DSP’s previous characterisation of the ALP, which it had inherited from the Trotskyist movement’s analysis of Social Democratic parties around the world, was based on the determination of the class character of a political party not only by its program — its real aims and the means by which it seeks their attainment — but also by the class composition of its membership and supporters. This approach, however, represents a departure from the Marxist method of analysing social phenomena … Thus, for Marxists, the class character of a political party is not determined by the class that supports it at any particular time but by what class the party supports, ie by the party’s program, by its real aims and basic policy. From this point of view, the only correct one for Marxists, the ALP is not a worker’s but a bourgeois party.”
Lorimer simply asserts without serious explanation as to why, that the Trotskyists were wrong about all the sociology, and the only thing that matters in this context is the program of political parties.
People and organisations as diverse as the Revolutionary Communist Group, which Ben Courtice relies on, Lorimer and the DSP, Phillip Ferguson and Jose P all assert this proposition that program is the only consideration and the sociology of workers’ organisations is unimportant. Anyone can make such assertions if they wish. As Trotsky said of the Stalinists in the 1930s, paper will take any rubbish that’s written on it. It’s totally ahistorical and unscientific, however, to associate this political approach with Lenin.
Lenin’s political thought and practice had two axes. One was the independence of the Marxist organisation and program as developed in practice by Marxist organisations, but the other axis of Lenin’s thought and strategy was a total realism in political practice, one aspect of which was realism in relation to the grip and power of mass workers’ organisations based on trade unions.
The aspiration of Marxist organisations to displace the existing reformist leaderships of the mass organisations dictated the necessity of a united front tactic by the Marxist organisations towards the mass reformist organisations.
All of that is there in Lenin’s writings and political practice for those who have eyes to see it, and assertions about program being the total determinant and the sociology being unimportant are an anti-Leninist invention.
These questions are important, and not to be dismissed summarily and I raise them sharply with the DSP, the ISO and others because I consider them to be of critical importance to the further development of the socialist movement.
Richard Price in Britain has just written a useful article on these matters in which he characterises most of the groups in the British Socialist Alliance as “Third-Period Trotskyists”, a characterisation that I find useful and attractive, and he attaches the resolution of the British Communist Party in 1929, which adopted the Third Period line.
This contribution should be considered in conjunction with the empirical sociology in The People’s Choice, a review of a book about electoral politics in NSW.
Labor, Lorimer and Lenin
September 25, 2002
Doug Lorimer remarks that I can’t have read Lenin and presents an extract from Lenin’s Speech to the Comintern on August 6, 1920, from which he announces he took his formulation.
This in itself is an important step, because in the introduction that I criticise Doug doesn’t make any direct ascription to Lenin, he just presents the formulation, in an oracular kind of way, as if he might have written it himself.
Doug is a bit difficult to get at because he’s primarily an inner-party man. He’s the editor of Green Left Weekly and obviously writes most of the editorials, but they don’t have a byline. Along with Dave Holmes, he’s a major driving force in the DSP’s publishing program, for which I have a great deal of respect.
Doug writes many of the introductions, which are often heavily slanted, to reprints of the classics of Marxism. But if you take the introductions with a grain of salt, making these classics available at lowish prices to an Australian audience fills a gap, and for that I’m very grateful to the DSP.
Publishing a moderately priced Australian edition of Struggle for a Proletarian Party by Jim Cannon may seem like a pretty exotic venture, but being in some ways myself a similar sort of exotic to the people in the DSP, I applaud this bold publishing initiative.
Doug is regarded in DSP circles as the major authority on doctrinal questions, and his use of this quote in the way he does goes to the heart of the difference between me and the DSP on how to approach Lenin.
I believe that the way the DSP made the turn, from a united front, and/or entrist tactic towards Labor, to a total exposure posture, was that the strong personality, who was dominant in the DSP until his untimely death, the late Jim Percy, decided on a change of tack, and he looked to Doug Lorimer and a couple of other young theorists to provide a justification, and the obvious way to go for this justification was to invoke the authority of Lenin extremely instrumentally.
That approach to Lenin was presented as “ditching the old Trotskyism” in response to some kind of lightning bolt from heaven to go back to Lenin. Ever since, the DSP has presented Lenin as a kind of immutable doctrinal force by selecting such quotes as suit its current tactical purposes and trying to batter opponents into the ground with these quotes and with the DSP’s appropriated authority as the “Leninists”.
I can understand the concern of Louis Proyect, sorcerer of this list, that this discussion between myself and others, including Doug, should not degenerate into the old kind of madness, in which Doug and I, both of whom know a bit of Lenin, (despite what Lorimer says about me), lob quotes at each other. We could do that for quite a long time, and it might even be informative, but in practice it would tend to drive us all mad.
When approaching Lenin, or quoting him, context is all-important. Doug Lorimer has in this instance dragged, screaming, so to speak, a paragraph out of the whole speech. It’s one of the few paragraphs in the whole speech that could be used to suit his immediate purpose.
In this speech Lenin argues that the British Communist Party should affiliate to the British Labour Party. It is mainly a polemic against the ultralefts, Willie Gallagher and Sylvia Pankhurst, who regarded any association with the British Labour Party as original sin — a bit like the DSP does now.
This particular speech is a model of Lenin’s way of proceeding in these matters. In the paragraph that Lorimer quotes, Lenin demarcates Marxism and the Marxists sharply from the betrayals of Social Democracy, and then uses this demarcation as a buttress to his main aim in the speech, which is to draw honest ultralefts into the orbit of Marxism. He pays particular attention to the honest anarcho-syndicalists who were rallying to the Comintern, but he then goes on to lecture them in his discursive way about tactics towards mass workers’ organisations dominated by reactionary leaders.
He’s trying to carry the ultralefts along with him, and he’s quite properly ticking off the tendency of the leaders of the British Socialist Party towards a certain adaptation to Labourism. These BSP leaders had pretty thick skins and tended to accept Lenin’s tutelage, and most of them went on to become major leaders of the British CP.
This speech of Lenin reinforces my enormous respect for the totality of Lenin’s thought and practice, and their dialectical aspect. Currently, the reactionary philistine, Martin Amis, who fancies himself as a fashionable stylist, attacks Lenin’s alleged lack of literary style to make some sort of inane construction that Lenin was a political barbarian because of his lack of “literary style”.
As a political animal, my view differs from that of Amis. Lenin’s discursive and pedagogical style in these speeches is a very useful way to develop a dialectical approach to political practice, even if the route seems a little circuitous. Dialectics in Marxist politics can be a very useful thing, and Lenin was a master of that craft.
Lorimer’s use of this paragraph, seizing it out of context, to try to present it as a justification of a tactic that is in fact the opposite of the clear intention of the whole speech, is the core issue dividing myself and the DSP in these matters. There is a very considerable literature about Lenin, Trotsky and the united front tactic in the Comintern, at the first four congresses and up to the period about 1927.
In response to Lorimer’s treatment of this paragraph, I would exhort the serious people following this discussion to do a bit of reading about the context. Read the whole of the speech that Lorimer butchers.
Lenin’s contribution to this debate was in Left Wing Communism and a number of speeches to Comintern congresses. It’s also on pages 174-5 of the malicious Richard Pipes book, The Unknown Lenin document 111, Letter to Radek, in which Lenin clearly spells out that an immediate task of the British Communists is to campaign in a vigorous and practical way for the election of a Labour government.
On page 410 of Robert Service’s critical biography of Lenin, Service describes the events in the following way:
“Parties belonging to the Comintern, he declared, should break with opportunistic kinds of socialism that rejected the need for the dictatorship of the proletariat; but simultaneously he demanded that British Communists should affiliate themselves to the British Labour Party. His argument was that British Communism was as yet too frail to set up an independent party. He got his way at the expense of mystifying the Comintern congress and irritating the British delegate, Sylvia Pankhurst, communist and feminist.”
In this document Lenin, in his inimitable way, makes very practical proposals, which Pipes tries to present as some kind of immoral intervention in British politics. Richard Pipes is a serious philistine.
Trotsky also played a major part in these debates through speeches to Comintern congresses in favour of the united front tactic, and Lenin made a point of publicly identifying himself in support of these speeches of Trotsky.
These speeches of Trotsky are in The First Five Years of the Communist International (Pathfinder Press), and these issues are described carefully and at length by Isaac Deutscher in The Prophet Unarmed (pp 59-69, Oxford University Press edition).
In these speeches Trotsky is at great pains to emphasise that the separation of the Communists and Marxists from the Social Democrats should not be used to justify opposing a strategic united front with Social Democracy.
The ultralefts that Trotsky and Lenin were arguing with tried to use extracts from Lenin in exactly the way Lorimer uses them, and they were sharply called to order, particularly by Trotsky in one speech.
As I said in the previous post, it’s the dialectical element in Lenin’s pedagogical approach to the development of the Marxist movement that’s clear from any reasonable overview of the period, not Lorimer’s one-sided emphasis on the betrayals of Social Democracy, which he tries to buttress by wrenching a piece out of this one speech and giving it the opposite emphasis. As the Comintern degenerated after Stalin grabbed political power in the Bolshevik Party, the experience of the imposition of the Third Period is of great interest and importance.
In the united front period the British Communists took the initiative along with others to develop a left-wing movement in the British Labour Party, which in part appealed to the indigenous traditions of British socialism to establish the authority and influence of this left-wing movement. Such a tactical stance was not regarded as original sin. Something similar happened in Australia.
As part of the imposition of the Third Period, Stalin chopped this promising initiative in the British Labour Party into small pieces. This experience is discussed in detail in the book: Essays on the History pf Communism in Britain by Woodhouse and Pearce (New Park, 1975) in the chapter on the Communist Party and the Labour Left, starting on p179. It’s also discussed in Hugo Dewar’s Communist Politics in Britain: the CPGB from its Origins to the Second World War (Pluto Press, 1976). (I have copies of both these books for sale in my shop.)
It’s also discussed in a more recent book, The British Communist Party and Moscow 1920-43 by Andrew Thorpe (Manchester University Press, 2000). The imposition of the third period in Australia has been documented thoroughly in articles by Barbara Curthoys in the Australian Labour History magazine and the Australian Journal of Politics and History and by Beris Penrose in Labour History.
(To my list of works important for a realistic balance sheet of Lenin’s work and practice that I gave in the previous post, I should add Angelica Balabanof’s rather irritable Impressions of Lenin — Michigan University Press, 1964.)
In deference to the legitimate uneasiness of Louis Proyect about overdoing a historical approach, I intend, after this post, to desist for a while from further historical material in favour of analysis of contemporary sociology, which I canvassed in the previous post, which is still in the works.
I’d also like to address to Doug Lorimer, locally, this proposal: why not have a face-to-face public discussion of these issues in say, at least Sydney and Melbourne, in any location, framework or environment you might suggest!
The united front and tactics today
September 26, 2002
Nick Fredman and Richard Fidler bring this discussion back to earth a bit, and address some of the tactical issues in a calm and non-abusive way, which is a relief after Alan Bradley and Peter Boyle, to whom I will reply on a personal note later.
Richard and Nick go to the centre of any reasonable debate about the united front. I have no fundamental disagreement with the Fredman-Fidler formulation, and that is one way of expressing the strategic conceptions of Lenin, Trotsky and the early Comintern.
I’d point also, however, to the tactical aspect of the practice of the Comintern before Stalinisation. The British and Australian communist parties both, with the full backing of the Comintern, experimented with a pedagogic agitation internal to the Labour Party that was most comprehensively expressed in the National Left Wing Movement in the British Labour Party, which had great success after the betrayal of the 1926 General Strike, and was liquidated in 1928 as part of the Stalinist counter-revolution embodied in the Third Period strategy.
Fidler and Fredman sensibly present the issues strategically, by contrast with the simple reiteration by Peter Boyle of another harsh paragraph about Social Democracy out of the disputed Lenin speech. In response to that I return to my general point that readers of this exchange should work their way through some of the material I’ve indicated and consider the whole context of the debate.
With Nick Fredman’s description of his own political practice I have no quarrel either, and he makes the sensible point that his only major ally in battles in his union branch in rural NSW is the only ALP member in sight, which is an important point, sociologically speaking.
When Nick extrapolates his own strategic conceptions and practice to the DSP as a whole, he’s being a bit ingenuous, though. Nick’s an old hand, relatively speaking. He has been around for 10 years or so, he’s a loyal and active DSP member trailblazing in an area with several educational institutions where a number of big rural towns are growing into cities, so I’m more than willing to listen to his practical experiences.
One of the features of the DSP, that — despite the fact that Boyle thinks I ‘m an “old crank” — I find very attractive, is the practical trailblazing of people such as Nick Fredman at Lismore, Shane Hopkinson and Brett Kupskoff in Rockhampton, some of the people in Darwin, although not all, and Alex Bainbridge and Kamala Emanuel in Tasmania.
Even, however, in these areas, these comrades’ understanding of the united front is not uniform.
I’m very dubious about the strategic emphasis of the DSP comrades in Darwin. They seem to have an approach quite different to the one outlined by Nick and seem to concentrate their fire on a rather full-blown exposure tactic directed at the Labor Party in the Northern Territory. This seems to me to be particularly unwise, as the NT has just elected a relatively progressive Labor government after 25 years of Tory rule. This new Labor government has several Aboriginal ministers, and its accession to office over the reactionary Tories is regarded by nearly all progressive elements in the NT, particularly Aboriginal people, as a great step forward.
The primary focus on exposing Labor in the NT seems totally nuts to me, given the enthno-cultural composition of that region. In addition to this, the apparent tactical emphasis on the issue of the total legalisation of all drugs seems very unwise in the context of the NT, where substance abuse is a huge practical day-to-day problem in Aboriginal communities. There is a variety of responses to this problem in the Aboriginal communities, including quite widespread support in some places of total prohibition.
This is a difficult and vexed area for us in the Marxist tradition, and it is not absolutely clear that there is an immediate, simple answer. It seems to me that the dominant strategic focus of the DSP comrades in the Northern Territory on this question, in they way that they have posed it — associating a totally libertarian stance on all kinds of substances, combined with an exposure tactic towards the Labor Party — is insensitive and imprudent. It is particularly insensitive to the real problems of Aboriginal life, over and above the strategic issue of the united front.
I don’t want to be too pejorative about this question because it is a difficult and serious one and ought not to be decided on the run.
I would like to see a careful, possibly private, discussion of those issues to arrive at a sensible strategic orientation. I gather from reading the DSP internal material that there has been some sort of split and some defections from the DSP in Darwin and I don’t know how this relates to the legalisation of drugs question, but I’m sure it does.
Taken as a whole, I regard the DSP’s trailblazing activities as positive, and I respect the experience of the people who take on these activities, particularly because operating in these environments brings them into contact with Australian society as it really is, and often sharply poses the question of the united front. Operating in these more remote areas tends to throw into bold relief the real class divide between Labor and Liberal in Australian society.
The Fredman-Fidler formulation is very important from this angle.
That view is in fact quite different to a view of Australian sociology, politics and life that totally equates Labor and Liberal as two capitalist parties, as if that is the last word on the question.
What initially got me going in this argument with the DSP, was listening to the reporters at the December 2000 DSP conference saying in both reports that the primary strategic question in the student and labour movements at that time was the total exposure of Laborism.
Both reporters spoke for more than an hour on this theme, and were greeted by exaggerated total unanimity.
This presented to me the stark reality of the internal atmosphere in the DSP. This debate about the united front isn’t primarily about history, but about immediate strategic questions. I’ve introduced the historical dimension deliberately because I’m sick to death of being battered by the fixation of Lorimer and Boyle on a couple of paragraphs from Lenin wrenched ruthlessly out of context to defend an incorrect strategy.
The only answer to that is to point to the whole balance of the Bolshevik experience in these matters, and I think I’ve done that rather efficiently in the reading list I’ve recommended — as even Boyle, and certainly Fredman, concede. (I bitterly resent Boyle’s accusation that I introduce these questions as some kind of cover for bad practice, and the crazy obsession of an “old crank” with the DSP. These contributions of mine are deeply felt, carefully considered, and based on reflections on a lifetime of socialist agitation, some of it successful, some of it correct, and some of it misdirected.)
One has only to read the editorials in Green Left Weekly and the dominating, constant, implacable exposure aspect of them, and consider the practice of the DSP in the student movement, to get an idea of what I mean. The two other active socialist groups in the student movement, the ISO and Socialist Alternative, both locate their conflicts with the DSP partly in this area.
Leading members of both groups assert that they both separately have a strategic orientation to encouraging the division between left and right Labor elements, who are the dominant force in the student movement. Both the ISO and Socialist Alternative students say they are trying to form a strategic united front that includes the broad left elements, the three Marxist groups and the Labor left in a kind of bloc against right-wing Labor and the Liberals, who tend to operate in coalition in the student movement.
The ISO and Socialist Alternative students assert that, in practice, the DSP students bitterly oppose any general bloc of that sort, saying the left Labor students are, in a sense, the worst because they act as a cover for the capitalist Labor Party. This strategic aspect of the DSP’s practical activity is confirmed by the generalisations made by the DSP’s national student organiser in her recent report in the DSP internal bulletin.
I don’t want to overstate this because the conflicts with the ISO and Socialist Alternative over these matters, and my generalisations about them in my polemics, have had some effect on the strategic emphasis of the DSP, and there may be the beginnings of discussion of these matters in DSP circles, in an indirect way. Such indirectness is probably inevitable in an organisation as tight as the DSP.
I note the Socialist Alliance appeal to the Laborites on the Iraq war, in terms of the anti-militarist tradition of the Labor Party, written obviously by Dick Nichols, and I regard that statement as the beginning of wisdom in DSP circles. It’s clearly a bit of a change of emphasis from the strategic approach of the recent past, and the strategic emphasis in this discussion on the only piece of Lenin they can find to support their argument.
Nick, defending the DSP, asserts that there has been some discussion on these strategic questions in the Socialist Alliance. Again, he’s being a bit ingenuous. The only place that a real head-to-head debate on union disaffiliation from the ALP took place was Sydney, where Phil Sandford, one of the national convenors of the Socialist Alliance, insisted on it.
He argued the case against union disaffiliation, and his comprehensive case was only summarily reported in Green Left. In the other cities, where the DSP were the main organisers of the seminars, they were organised so the debate wasn’t so clear on these questions, and I’ m told by people who were present at the debate in WA and Melbourne that the Green Left accounts of the debates were heavily slanted in favour of the disaffiliation proponents.
In these matters the DSP leadership leans heavily on a proletarian ally of theirs, Chris Cain in WA, an energetic trade union militant from Liverpool, England, who was once a member of the British Militant group, and who conducts a very boisterous and quite effective exposure of Laborism agitation of his own — which suits the DSP.
In my view, Chris Cain and the Militant group in Australia, who are nice people and effective agitators, are in relation to the Labour Party question a bit like reformed alcoholics in relation to grog. They tend to overcompensate for their donkey’s years of quite effective entry work in the Labour Party by an exposure rhetoric even more extreme than that of the DSP.
Chris Cain is a serious trade unionist and it happens that there are couple of other significant trade unionists in WA who have had a similar approach to Labor for the past 20 years or so, but they don’t constitute the mass breakaway from Laborism that they’re presented as in DSP circles, and neither does the group of militants in Victoria, which includes Workers First, the Textile Union’s Michele O’Neil and the CFMEU.
Incidentally, Nick, the DSP does describe Michele O’Neil internally as a “rather cynical ALP member”. That’s the description in a report by Sue Bull in a recent internal bulletin. I didn’t invent it, and in serious political matters I don’t invent anything.
I’ll take up matters such as my age, “crankiness”, “eccentricity” and hairstyle in another post.