Labor students: cream or scum?


Bob Gould

The extravagant and nasty tone of Nick Fredman’s comment on the issues I raised in a recent post about left-wing Labor students says quite a lot about the culture of the DSP. It also reveals something about the politics of the DSP.

Fredman starts by quoting a throwaway remark by Kim Beazley Senior, former right-wing Labor MP (and a member of Moral Rearmament) that in the labour movement the “cream of the working class” has been replaced by the “scum of the middle class”, with a tiny disclaimer, and a contemptuous nod to me that I will no doubt know the quote and context.

He’s certainly right about that, and the context, in current Australian political controversy, is all-important. That throwaway remark of Beazley has been repeated again and again in the tabloid media by unpleasant right-wing columnists to attack the whole labour movement on issues on which the labour movement is progressive, such as reconciliation with Aboriginal people, non-discriminatory migration policy, civilised treatment of homosexual people, concern for the environment, and other questions.

It says something about the primitive nature of the DSP’s obsession with exposing Laborism that Fredman should so mindlessly and contemptuously throw into the pot one of the major contemporary themes of mainstream Australian reaction.

At no stage did I say the segment of the left that starts life as leftist Labor students were the cream of anything. I just pointed to the fact, obvious to everybody on the left except the DSP, that the leftist Labor students are part of the left in the broader sense. Not the cream, just a part.

Nick Fredman’s notion that the entry-level wage for trade union organisers in Australia is a particular source of corruption is self-interested nonsense. Young people working for unions, who are often pretty talented, start at a lowish wage in comparison with similarly qualified people in big-end-of-town jobs.

I gather that Fredman is a staff member at a university. Does his salary automatically corrupt him? Fredman’s demagoguery on this salary question is unsound, and it slots in with bourgeois new-class theory. For more on this see The Real Story About the New Class.

Fredman’s DSP-self-serving and incomplete history of the student movement leaves out or blurs over many of the main issues and turning points. As Cannon said in the First 10 Years of American Communism, one way of lying is by omission.

It’s important to know the actual history of the behaviour of the DSP in the Australian student movement. In 1987 a new national student union, the National Union of Students, was built to replace the old AUS, which had been demolished by the Tory government of Malcolm Fraser. This rebuilding began as the DSP’s exposure-of-Laborism orgy was getting into full swing.

The rebuilding of NUS was a real battle. Some Liberal governments in the states tried to make it illegal for student unions to join the NUS. Liberal students conducted a rearguard struggle on a number of campuses to defeat the student referenda to affiliate to NUS. The Liberals’ only major ally in fighting to defeat these referenda to establish NUS was the DSP.

In the early stages of this battle, for a number of years, the DSP and the Liberals were allied in an unsuccessful campaign to prevent the building of the new NUS, and the DSP campaigned for a no vote in a series of referenda on a number of campuses.

The standpoint of the DSP in these early years is summed up quite proudly in Green Left Weekly 371, in 1995:

“The National Union of Students (NUS) was formed in 1987. From its inception, it has been dominated by members of the Labor Party, particularly members of the National Organisation of Labor Students (NOLS). How the left should approach NUS has been the topic of controversy within the student movement for many years.

“Left Alliance (LA) was formed in 1987 by members of the Communist Party, Resistance, the Democratic Socialist Party, the Young Socialist League and independent activists. One of the earliest debates within LA was over its approach to NUS.

“Resistance and the DSP opposed the formation of NUS because it was a bureaucratic organisation dominated by the ALP, which sought to curtail the vibrant free education campaign. Resistance and DSP activists left LA in December 1988 over the issue of participation in NUS.

“In 1993, a new left group in NUS, the Non-Aligned Left, was formed by activists involved in a feminist caucus (set up by LA) and environmental activists mainly from NSW and Victoria.

“In 1996, Resistance decided to become involved in NUS. Resistance changed its perspective because students were looking to NUS to launch campaigns. The activist movements, which had existed outside NUS’s structures, had weakened or collapsed.”

Some comment is required on this bald account of the DSP’s initial alliance with the Liberals to try to stop the construction of a student union and their somersault to becoming active in it when their attempts to stop its development were unsuccessful.

The DSP’s justification was that the NUS would be a prop for the federal Labor government because its initiators were left Laborites. Everyone on the left except the DSP called for yes votes in those early referenda about the affiliation of local student unions to NUS.

Only after the Liberals and the DSP were thoroughly defeated in their attempts to prevent the construction of NUS did the DSP change its line to a grudging and contemptuous acceptance of the accomplished fact of the rather robust existence of NUS.

It’s hardly surprising in these circumstances that the Labor students, who along with the Broad Left students had fought to establish the NUS, fairly rapidly emerged as the dominant force in NUS.

The new body managed to overcome the legal and institutional obstacles put in its way by Liberal governments, and it is now a massive student organisation, embracing the student bodies on almost all the nearly 100 tertiary campuses in Australia. It has a notional membership of nearly 400,000 students and is dominated at federal level and in pretty well every state and territory by a broad left current in which the Labor left students are the dominant force. In NUS terms, the DSP are rather small potatoes.

The bankruptcy of this DSP orientation eventually produced some stresses internally in the DSP. In the late 1980s the Resistance national organiser, who had been a protégé of the then national secretary of the DSP, the powerful and assertive Jim Percy, had a personal falling out with Jim Percy. This Resistance organiser also developed a critique of the extremism of the attack on the Labor students, which he had been obliged to carry out as Resistance organiser, and began to call for more balance in the approach to NUS and the student Laborites.

He was battered into the ground, politically speaking, in the internal bulletin of the DSP, particularly by Doug Lorimer, Jim Percy’s court chamberlain, in these ideological and organisational matters. (Lorimer was for a very long time officially the “National Organisation Secretary” of the DSP.) Lorimer compared the young Resistance leader with Don Quixote and asserted extremely forcefully that there had been no lack of balance, and anyway militancy in the cause of righteousness was a good thing. Shortly after this the former national Resistance organiser departed from the DSP.

One thing remembered by, and commented on, by people who were in the leadership of the DSP at the time this happened, was the personal ridicule and invective adopted by Doug Lorimer in his contributions directed at the Resistance organiser and his couple of supporters.

Throughout most of the 1990s the DSP persisted with this increasingly politically bankrupt “expose the Laborites in all situations” tactical orientation in the student movement. Fredman proclaims that proudly. He obviously has some emotional investment in this, as he was a participant from a small, provincial university.

He says the crime of the Laborites was that they did from time to time raise demands on behalf of students and attack the government, but they didn’t do it boldly enough or consistently enough.

Surely, to any Marxist group, other than the systematic sectarians of the DSP, that situation might dictate the policy of a critical united front with the Labor students, in which an attempt could be made to push them further in a revolutionary direction by placing demands on them, combined with patient explanation and gentle pressure. None of that for Fredman and the DSP. The only string to their little strategic bow is exposure, and this exposure strategy towards the left Laborite students has continued through most of the 1990s up to the present.

All the other leftist tendencies in the student movement — the remnants of the Broad Left, the ISO, the Socialist Alternative and the odd Green — have come around to their own variant of some kind of tactical united front with the left Laborites who are dominant in NUS.

Over the past two or three years, the frenzied opposition of the DSP to any such tactical united front has, if anything, become more intense, and Fredman’s angry and nasty tone reflects that situation.

At the NUS conference three years ago, the DSP joined a Broad Left caucus and then split from it in the course of 18 months, on the question of exposing the Laborites — a rather extraordinary performance, even for the DSP.

Witnessing the way the organiser of the DSP caucus at this particular NUS conference asserted at the DSP’s decision-making conference to unanimous applause and vote, that they had made the “perfect intervention”, was one of the things that convinced me of the hardened sectarianism that had become endemic in the DSP. This was one the reasons I commenced my leaflet war with the DSP leadership on these questions.

Fredman’s attitude is bizarre when he whinges about his personal pain at having to sit through NUS conferences. It beggars belief. NUS conferences are, after all, student conferences. Quite a lot of manoeuvring and log-rolling is endemic to any student conference, but nevertheless, the over-riding issues are discussed and debated and the big political issues tend to predominate.

The reality is that, of all the groupings involved, the DSP, according to all my informants, tends to be the most disruptive force. This disruptive character is given greater weight by the DSP’s exaggeratedly democratic c-c-c-centralist style of intervention.

In her report on a recent student conference printed in an DSP internal bulletin, the current Resistance national organiser proudly proclaims that the DSP chimed in with the Socialist Alternative to raise hell and deliberately create havoc at a recent student conference. So much for Fredman’s pompous crocodile tears about NUS conferences.

The current DSP opposition

There is currently a very party-loyal internal opposition in the DSP, largely made up of students at Sydney and NSW universities, most of whom were DSP student activists in the mid and late 1990s. I pointed to the fact, in a recent post, that by rejecting the opposition’s request for an immediate discussion last year (only opening up such an internal discussion, now, in the run-up to this year’s DSP conference) that in a certain sense the DSP leadership had locked up the opposition and thrown away the democratic centralist key for a whole year.

The intervening year has given the DSP leadership sufficient time to isolate the opposition, inoculate the members against them and thereby diminish any impact their arguments may have in the run-up to the coming DSP conference. Peter Boyle got very angry about my post and said the DSP’s decision not to have a discussion last year proved how democratic the DSP was. After all, Boyle said, the DSP leadership hadn’t expelled the opposition, as by Boyle’s implication may have happened in the DSP in the past.

Well, of course, it depends how you look at it. One of the issues with this opposition was, and is, a certain criticism of the DSP’s sectarianism, in their view mainly towards the “anti-capitalist movement” but also to some extent towards the student Laborites.

It seems clear to me that a number of the comrades in this group have made a bit of a balance sheet of their experiences in the student movement and are moving, inevitably in a cautious way towards a more sensible view of possible DSP interventions in the student movement.

However, they are clearly a bit uneasy about spelling this out too much at this point because of what happened to the Resistance national organiser in the early 1990s and their own experiences in the DSP. (The foregoing is my assessment of the situation of the DSP, and the opposition, based on external observation and a certain amount of very indirect information, from a couple of recent ex-members of the DSP, and I don’t wish to put words into the mouths of anyone in the DSP opposition. In due course, they will obviously have to develop and publicise their current views, whatever they are, internally in the DSP).

An overview of the Green Left Weekly accounts of DSP activity in the student movement in the mid-1990s is very informative. After the DSP was forced to drop its opposition to NUS as an institution, by the physical failure of the opposition of the Liberals and the DSP to the growth of NUS, there was clearly a year or two of greater sanity and more moderation in DSP strategy and behaviour in the student movement.

There was a period when the accounts in Green Left became less rabid towards the Laborites, when Resistance supported the affiliation of student unions to NUS, and when the handling of reports of student events was calmer, more sensible, and even had embryonic elements of a united front strategy.

In this interregnum several of the younger leaders, now part of the DSP loyal opposition, were elected to positions in NUS and one of them became Resistance national organiser. Then, clearly, something changed. This national organiser relinquished the post, others took over and the rabid, harsh expose-the-Laborites posture of the early 1990s reasserted itself. The distant rumour mill has it that at this point some of these younger leaders presented very careful, rather mild, criticisms of the isolationist stance of the DSP. The leadership responded in the way that is usual in such organisations, by isolating this group, people they may have attempted to influence were encouraged to move to other cities, etc.

This opposition’s careful and low-key criticisms in fact resembled the approach of the national Resistance organiser 10 years before, which I’ve discussed above.

In the recent period, the opposition has been presented with the ultimatum that, of course they can have internal discussion in the run-up to the coming conference, but according to the Cannonist understanding of democratic centralism they have to carry out the line handed down from the “team leadership” of the DSP in the run-up to the conference, even if they disagree with it.

In reality this “team leadership” of the DSP is a caucus in constant session aimed at homogenising the DSP membership, and battering them into shape in support of political tactics already worked out inside the leadership. In this organisational model, common to all Cannonist groupings, there is little real scope for a free flow of political discussion inside the organisation despite the fact that theoretically the possibility exists constitutionally in the short run-up to conferences, and the existence of an internal bulletin allows some discussion.

What happens in practice is that any critical voice is hammered into the ground by the “team leadership” functioning for practical purposes as a caucus inside the organisation. This is an organisational feature of all the groups built on this Cannonist-Zinovievist model.

If I was a current member of a serious opposition in one of these groups I would propose, on the basis of an overview of the lamentable results of this form of democratic centralism, some amendments to the structure. The main amendment would be that minutes of the political bureau and discussions in the smallest central leadership groups should normally be available to the whole membership and that all members, including members of the leadership, with divergent points of view should have an automatic right to campaign for their point of view inside the organisation at any time. This was, in fact, how the Bolshevik faction/party functioned before the Russian Revolution.

The Cannonist structure was an aberration that developed in the period of the developing Thermidor in the Bolshevik Party and the Soviet state.

The error of judgement of Lenin and Trotsky in banning factions in 1921 contributed to this. In practice, the Cannonist structure has had a disastrous effect for serious political discussion inside Marxist groups, and has in most of them become a serious obstacle to real revolutionary leaderships developing.

The effect of “team leaderships” in Cannonist-type organisations is that the organisations as a whole rarely learn from real experiences in the mass movement. Organisations with this structural set-up tend to eventally become dominated by what I’ve just discovered on Marxmail that the old Trotskyist leader with the wonderful proletarian name of Jim Higgins, called the “iron whim” of the dominant leader, who usually emerges within the “team leadership”.

The student movement is a vital arena for socialists in modern Australia. The 700,000 tertiary students now include a very large section of people of working class origin who in previous generations never got to universities. In Australia, despite the rhetoric used by some in the ISO, imitating Britain, the mood of socialists in universities is rather defensive. The dominant social attitude in universities is: get a degree, get a job, earn some money.

There is still a substantial radical student movement, which has become the dominant organised political force in NUS and on most campuses, but the radical students, although a substantial force, are a very distinct minority of the student body. Inevitably, even the radicals are in a rather defensive frame of mind, and this extends to the bulk of the left Labor students who are dominant in the organised student movement.

It’s inevitable in the current environment that many leftist students who want to remain politically active after leaving university will look for employment in unions or even as political staffers.

Fredman implicitly recognises this when he uses rhetoric about how the DSP ought to be concerned about creating a political movement for graduates of universities that is broader than just the DSP’s party-building.

One result of the posture adopted by the DSP through the 1990s is that although it’s possible for left Labor, Broad Left and even ISO and Socialist Alternative students to enter the organised labour movement when they leave university, that possibility generally doesn’t exist for DSP activists because the DSP has made itself viscerally unpopular with the rest of the left. Australian cities, despite their size (Sydney has four million people) are in another sense relatively small towns, and the DSP activists suffer the penalty that flows from the DSP leadership’s encouragement of unpleasant factionalism for most of the past 15 years in the student movement.

This isolation of the DSP is much more a product of the DSP’s implacable factionalism than it is of any witch-hunt against the DSP. In these circumstances DSP members leaving universities either have to find rare-as-hen’s-teeth academic jobs, go teaching, work for the public service or work full-time for the DSP. This set of circumstances in fact rather suits the DSP leadership, because it contributes to the beleaguered, besieged atmosphere that the leadership generates around the DSP. This deliberately besieged political style is one of the reasons DSP has managed to survive in the difficult atmosphere of the 1990s.

A political organisation of this sort can survive in this way and even recruit and prosper a bit, but there are serious limits to how far a group like this can penetrate the labour movement or the working class. This kind of dilemma faces the very party-loyal DSP opposition, most of whom are at the end of their studies, and it also obviously underlies the extreme venom of Fredman’s post.

The normal NUS annual national conference will be held this November in the now-traditional location of Ballarat in Victoria. The DSP has presented the ISO and the Socialist Alternative with the proposition that they should form a common caucus at this conference and those two groups have tentatively agreed to such a caucus.

That should prove a very interesting caucus indeed, given the fact that any of the DSP opposition who go to that conference will be expected and coerced according to the Cannonite principles of democratic centralism to vote for an expose-the-Laborites strategy.

The ISO and the Socialist Alternative will probably fight quite hard for a labour movement united front strategy and whoever wins it will be interesting to see whether an effort is made to make the decisions of this caucus binding. After all, the DSP split from the Broad Left caucus two years ago because the strategy decided by the caucus in favour of a united front with the left Laborites wasn’t acceptable to the DSP.

As well, the DSP is flagging its intention of dissolving into the Socialist Alliance and operating as a caucus in the Alliance, which will presumably function according to the DSP’s current Cannonite organisational principles.

The other sizeable group in the Socialist Alliance, the ISO, has indicated it won’t dissolve into the alliance.

All the above issues and historical references are presented to establish a context for people to be able to form a judgement on why Nick Fredman adopts such a petulant tone in his contribution on these matters.

Initially I started writing this piece from memory, and my main memory was of the DSP alliance with the Liberals in the unsuccessful attempt to prevent the establishment of NUS. Then, as I was writing, I began to question my own memory. Did the DSP really have the gall to side with the Liberals in all those referenda to prevent campuses affiliating with NUS?

So we punched NUS into the search engine of the Green Left Weekly archive, and out it all popped, about 150 pages of it. The sad, bad and dangerous-to-know story of the DSP’s extraordinary interventions in the student movement for the past 15 years, proudly recorded in a week-by-week running commentary in Green Left.

What a wonderful environment the net is, and what a wonderful weapon a search engine and a keyword is. It beats the hell out of scrabbling through my several rooms full of yellowing socialist newspapers. How did I ever write polemics before the web?

If anyone thinks my account of this piece of socialist political history is too harsh, I suggest they punch NUS into the Green Left Weekly archive and study the material on NUS and the student movement, as I have in the past 48 hours.

, Discussion, Discussion


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