The sociology of labour parties and trade unions


A review of the discussion on labour parties and an investigation of the sociology of labour parties and trade unions in English-speaking countries from the standpoint of trying to arrive at tactics required to build a class-struggle left wing

Bob Gould

Marxmail’s genial sorcerer Louis Proyect’s energetically organised and maintained international discussion is serving a very useful purpose. After a couple of months or so of familiarity with it, this old agitator is mightily impressed.

I’m moved and excited to have the practical opportunity for an immediate exchange, for example, with the comrade from Ireland, who conducts an important theoretical discussion while engaged in very immediate day-to-day political activities, dealing with the vicious assault of the British state on the small Sinn Fein mass party, the major political expression of the strivings of the 600,000 or so oppressed Catholics, right there in the belly of the old beast, British imperialism, on the island where the great wave of anti-imperialist revolution started in the 20th century with the Easter Rising in 1916.

We should never forget that, and the deliberate role of Marxists in that first national uprising of the oppressed colonial masses. James Connolly’s participation in and leadership of the Easter Rising and Lenin’s enthusiastic support for the rising established solidly one aspect of the struggle of socialists and Marxists for the whole of the 20th century.

We should respond to the aggressive behaviour of our old imperialist enemy, the British state, with what solidarity we can muster in our various labour movements for the comrades in Northern Ireland who have been lifted, and bear in mind also that these events in the six counties are by no means unconnected with the preparations for war by the US, British and Australian states against Iraq.

For any socialist worth two bob, the overriding immediate task is the maximum possible mobilisation against the impending imperialist assault on Iraq. This necessary mobilisation against the imperialist assault on Iraq will be made, particularly in Australia, significantly more difficult by the political atmosphere generated by the bourgeoisie around the atrocity in Bali.

Nevertheless, a massive 40,000-plus antiwar mobilisation took place in Melbourne the same day as the Bali bombing, although its media impact was partly obliterated by the Bali bombing. It’s not absolutely clear yet what impact the bombing will have on public opinion about the Iraq war, particularly in the medium term, despite the obvious intention of Howard and important sections of the Australian ruling class to use reaction to the Bali bombing to generate support for the war drive.

Despite Bali, however, if we are a bit lucky politically, this imperialist adventure may commence almost as unpopular in the community as the Vietnam War was towards its end, which is a very big problem for imperialist politics in Australia. The confused and awkward behaviour about the war of both the Tory government and Labor leader Simon Crean, in different ways, reflect this underlying reality.

The parallel discussions on socialist regroupment and strategy concerning mass labour parties

Since the DSP began energetically advertising on Marxmail its regroupment proposals in Australia, and I responded by arguing with them on the question of strategy towards the Labor Party-trade union continuum, we have settled into a very serious strategic discussion, in which we have in some respects got a little bit past point-scoring.

In particular, Richard Fidler’s recent contributions have drawn together and summarised some of the progress that we have made in this discussion, and I find Fidler’s broad theoretical summary of a number of the issues very persuasive.

I opened up the question of Comintern strategy in the early 1920s, and the dialectical, pedagogic nature of Lenin’s approach to these strategic questions, with the rather primitive intention of debunking the Doug Lorimer two-paragraphs-from-Lenin school of intellectual confusion. Fidler’s serious overview of all the issues involved, drawing on the work of Alistair Mitchell and Jim Dye, who as Fidler points out he doesn’t know, is now in my view the best short summary available to us. I defer to that summary and indicate that I believe Fidler is correct in sounding a note of warning about the over-optimism of the early Bolsheviks concerning short-term prospects of communist revolutionary success in displacing social democracy in countries with mass labour parties.

A thing that strikes me is how much, different national experiences affect this discussion. Fidler obviously has a long experience in intervening as a revolutionary in the labour movement in Canada. My experience here in Australia is based on almost 50 years of activity, including long periods of extremely intense activity. I have also been influenced by following the work of Trotskyists in Britain over that time, through the journals of the lively interventions of different groups. I received Gerry Healy’s Newsletter from its first issue in the 1950s, I subscribed to Tony Cliff’s Labour Worker for a very long time, and I used to get Pat Jordan’s The Week.

British Trotskyists of a number of traditions have a rich history of work in the British labour movement, and the detailed discussion of those interventions by Mitchell and Dye is extremely useful in this context. The older historical material about the early work of the Communist Party by Brian Pearce and Hugo Dewar also seems to me to be very important in this discussion.

It is obviously difficult for comrades in the US to initially get a fix on all the issues in this kind of discussion because the US has never had a mass labour party. In my patch, the ALP is the oldest in the English-speaking world, having started in 1890, and there is an enormous literature in Australia about the variety of experiences in the workers’ movement, and the interaction between groups of socialists and communists and the broader labour movement. It’s actually the largest literature of its sort in the English-speaking world.

I thought it was useful in the in the early stages of this discussion to offer a reading list of Lenin’s works and books about Lenin to establish the context in which Lenin and Trotsky approached the questions of strategy and tactics in the workers’ movement in 1921. As a small aside, I’d like to throw in a comment about Tony Cliff’s biography of Lenin made by Ted Crawford in The Tragedy of the International Socialists. Crawford says: “His later behaviour has been summed up by John Sullivan, unkindly if accurately, thus: ‘Cliff’s biography of Lenin is written in the peculiar style of a biography of John the Baptist by Jesus Christ’.”

Inevitably, this strategic discussion has been informed by the longer discussion on Marxmail about the other important strategic question — the nature of Marxist organisation, Leninism, Cannonism, Zinovievism, etc. I have found the discussion on those questions of great importance. It’s useful to discover that there are other people in the world who’ve come to similar conclusions on the basis of their own political activity and reading, and these exchanges are also very significant. Although for some on the list, their interest is primarily scholastic or academic (also legitimate activities), for many others, like myself, these questions of rearming ourselves intellectually, in new conditions, are of burning importance to future perspectives for practical activity.

On the sociology of mass labour parties, and the associated question of trade unionism in English-speaking countries — in both their historical development and in their current state — I inevitably have to polemicise with Ben Courtice, and to a lesser extent Phil Ferguson.

The slightly over-enthusiastic, “right-on” kind of dialogue a week or two back, but sporadically ongoing, between Phil Ferguson and Ben Courtice on matters of sociology, is instructive. Phil Ferguson views things from a standpoint that I described as principled sectarianism, Ben Courtice is an enthusiastic, energetic activist of his party, the DSP. He belts out extravagant sociological characterisations about yuppies, labour aristocracies, etc, in dialogue with Ferguson. (I don’t much like having a go at Ben, despite the fact that I think a lot of his sociology is wrong, because in my experience there’s another side to him that I greatly respect. He seems to me to have a burning interest in Marxist theory. Over a period of seven or eight years, whenever he comes to Sydney he does a systematic trawl through the accumulated Marxist literature in my shop and his interests are obviously very wide. He avoids much verbal encounter with the heretic Gould, but his inquiring mind is stronger than the narrow sectarianism characteristic of a number of the inhabitants of the far left groups. He’s the kind of bloke who would literally go into the gates of hell to find a significant book about the Marxist and socialist movement that he doesn’t have, and there’s always hope for someone like that. Courtice’s inquiring approach is in fairly sharp contrast with the other attitude characteristic, in my view, of many members of Marxist groups in Australia — they remain insulated in the texts and literature of their own tendency, and are not interested seriously in much else. In my view that state of mind is a great obstacle to political development. Happily, Ben Courtice is not like that at all.)

At this point, to get a basic sociological construct of Australia, I quote from my article, The People’s Choice: Electoral Politics in NSW:

The two most useful census documents for this inquiry are Australian Social Trends 1999 and the Social Atlas for each capital city, and I will use the 1996 Sydney Social Atlas as my working example. On page 83 of “Social Trends 1999” you get the Australian Bureau of Statistics classification of qualifications, which divides post-school qualifications into the following five: “bachelor degree and above”, “undergraduate diploma”, “associate diploma”, “skilled vocational qualification”, “basic vocational qualification”. For purposes of describing people who have a university degree or equivalent, it seems sensible to group the first two together as representing a university degree. In the first census where degrees were tabulated, 1966, 1.5 per cent of the population over 15 years had degrees. In 1976, 3 per cent had degrees. By 1996, Katharine Betts gives the figure of 10.2 per cent, but she seems to be wrong, as the Bureau gives the figure of 12.8 per cent. In addition, the Bureau gives a figure of 8.8 per cent for people with undergraduate diplomas and associate diplomas together. For simplicity’s sake, we may assume half the 8.8 per cent for each category, which means that in 1996, according to the Bureau, approximately 17.2 per cent of the adult population had a university degree. By 1998, according to the Bureau, the figure had become 14.5 per cent plus 7.9 per cent, which takes the number with a university degree up to 18.4 per cent of the adult population, a very high figure indeed.

“Another framework useful in relation to the educational qualifications of the population is the figures for the raw number of tertiary students. In 1912, when the Australian population was 4.5 million, there were a tiny 3672 tertiary students. In 1938, when the population was approximately 6.5 million, students were still a tiny 12,126. In 1966, when the population was 11.7 million, the number of students had risen to 91,272. Thirty years later, when the population had increased about 50 per cent, to about 18 million, the number of tertiary students had soared seven fold to 634,094.

“In the Census Bureau’s documentation there is a very detailed breakdown of “People with post-school qualifications, by type of qualification” by both age and sex. They reveal a very sharp increase in the number of women with university qualifications, who now number about the same as men, and who are concentrated in such areas as teaching, the health industry, social work and also, to some degree, in commerce and business. The number of female primary teachers went up between 1988 and 1998 from 71.7 per cent to 77.5 per cent. The number of female secondary teachers went up from 48.3 per cent to 53.5 per cent, and the number of women teaching in higher education went up from 27.3 per cent to 35.1 per cent.

“In 1996 227,000 people had bachelor degrees or higher in business and administration, 35.7 per cent of them were women, 213,600 had university degrees in health, 66.2 per cent of them were women, 357,800 had university degrees in the delightful ABS classification called “Society and Culture”, defined as “economics, law, behaviour, welfare, languages, religion and philosophy, librarianship, visual and performing arts, geography, communication, recreation and leisure, and policing”, 54.8 per cent of them were women. In engineering, however, with 120,100 only 8.4 per cent were women.

“The great numerical explosion of people with university degrees was a product of the Whitlam period educational reforms.

“The extremely useful Australian Social Trends 1999 has a detailed breakdown of the age composition of people with university degrees. Part of this table is reproduced here.

“The extraordinary increase in both men and women with degrees in the age group 25 to 54 clearly illustrates the magnitude of the explosion of tertiary education from about 1974 onwards. This forcefully underlines the very important point that this was the period when women soared from being a very small portion of the people with university degrees to rough numerical equality with men. It is fascinating to note the rage of conservative misogynists like Michael Thompson against the Whitlam period of free education. Possibly the rough equality in educational achievement gained by women in this period is one of the features that infuriates them.

“What emerges most strikingly from these statistics, is the enormous growth in the proportion of the whole adult population with university degrees. The very size and diversity of this group makes an absurdity of the conservative rhetoric that they comprise, as a whole, an elite “new class”. It is important to bring to bear other available statistical information to get a picture of what is really the Australian class formation at the moment and how this vastly increased group of university graduates fit into it. This is where an investigation of the information contained in the Social Atlas comes in, particularly if you superimpose on this information the fairly elementary and obvious information provided by the statistics of electoral behaviour in federal and state elections.

The Social Atlas tells you that people with degrees are heavily concentrated in Sydney on the North Shore, most of the eastern suburbs, and in a belt in the inner western suburbs. There are smaller concentrations in the Sutherland shire, the Georges River area, and the Blue Mountains. If you go, however, to the useful separate category that was provided in the 1991 Social Atlas, called Managers and Administrators, you find that this coincides almost exactly with the map of “high income earners”.

Both these maps, however, coincide only in part with the map of people with university qualifications. Most of the people in the southern part of the eastern suburbs and in the inner western suburbs, with university degrees, are thus neither “managers or administrators” or “high income earners” as defined by the ABS. I submit that, quite obviously, these graduates are by and large the ones working in teaching, health, social work, etc. Coincidentally, the divide in political voting behaviour is along almost exactly the same geographical lines among graduates as the apparent geographical divide between “high income earners” and “managers and administrators” and the rest of the population. The southern eastern suburbs and the inner west vote overwhelmingly Labor or Green, etc. The North Shore, Wentworth and the Georges River area, etc, all vote solidly Liberal. Any serious investigation of all these statistical tools shows that a real economic, political and class division exists within the ranks of university graduates, not between graduates and the rest of the population.

“The Social Atlas provides a wealth of useful information. There are maps of the distribution of migrants of different backgrounds, and these maps are very informative. Most non-English-speaking migrants are concentrated in the eastern suburbs, the inner western suburbs, and the middle western suburbs. The pattern of people with trade qualifications is the obverse of people with university degrees. Many people with trade qualifications are concentrated in the southern part of the eastern suburbs and the further western suburbs, but quite a few are also concentrated in the Sutherland shire and areas like Hornsby and the northern beaches. An overview of all the statistical information gives a breakdown of the class structure of the Sydney population on broadly the following lines.

“At the very top of Australian society there is a powerful ruling class, which interlocks with a power elite, if you prefer that form of words. This group is very small. It, however, exercises direct ideological influence and hegemony over a broader group who show up in the statistics as “managers and administrators” and “high income earners”, and these two maps in the Social Atlas are almost completely coincidental. For statistical purposes, it is useful to group the core power elite and/or ruling class and the aforementioned two groups, together, as statistical Group One.

“Statistical Group Two are very distinctly represented in the Social Atlas by the section of the map of university graduates, who are excluded from the map of “high income earners” and “managers and administrators”. These lower paid university graduates comprise university staff, teachers, health workers, many public servants, minor bureaucrats in welfare organisations, and other such people. They are concentrated heavily in the inner western suburbs and the southern part of the eastern suburbs. A very large number of these people are upwardly mobile people of Irish Catholic or older European migrant background, and include many people who don’t state a religious belief in the census. They are overwhelmingly Labor voters, although some vote for the Greens and the Democrats, in addition to the minority who vote Liberal.

“Statistical Group Three is the most diverse group. They are scattered all over Sydney, except in the areas of very high incomes on the North Shore, and in the northern eastern suburbs. They include such people as clerical workers, proprietors and workers in small retail businesses, bank workers, computer workers, call centre workers and finance industry workers. They also include many self-employed tradesmen. They range from low incomes to quite high incomes and are of very diverse ethnicity, Anglo, Irish Catholic, European migrant and even including self-employed recent migrants. A significant part of this group vote Labor, but some also vote Liberal, and the biggest number of swinging voters is concentrated in this group. The ruling class attempt to exercise ideological hegemony over this group, particularly through television and the tabloid press. A lot of the current reactionary populism of the right is an attempt to influence this group electorally.

“Statistical Group Four includes the blue-collar section of the working class and the unemployed. Although manufacturing industry has declined somewhat, the blue collar section of the working class is still a very decisive section of the population. This group is now composed overwhelmingly of recent non-English-speaking-background (NESB) migrants. This section of society is concentrated in the middle western suburbs, which are also the areas of recent migrant concentration and relatively high unemployment. This group overwhelmingly votes Labor in elections.

“Even a cursory overview of the correlation between the information provided in the census publications and electoral results confirms the general thrust of the above break-up and analysis. This four-level description of Australian society is realistic and useful for a variety of purposes.

“In my view, the dominant class division in Australian society is between the ruling class, with enormous economic and political power, who exercise very great ideological influence and hegemony over the “high income earner” and “managers and administrators” statistical group one, and the rest of the population. This four level division of Australian society holds for all the major capital cities and for the Illawarra, Newcastle, Whyalla, Launceston and Geelong, with the qualification that the smaller capitals and the provincial towns have a much lower NESB component in statistical Group Four, the blue collar section of the working class. Rural and provincial Australia contains some elements of this division, but a concrete analysis of rural and provincial Australia has to incorporate a number of other factors, and I will deal with rural and provincial Australia elsewhere.”

This is the very solid framework in which I approach the sociology of the mass Labor Party and the Greens, and the associated question of the trade unions in Australia. In current Australian conditions, babble about the “aristocracy of labour” is of no use at all. It’s theoretically unsound anyway, as Fidler has pointed out, and as the Cliff tendency internationally has always held, Lenin overstated the phenomenon of the “aristocracy of labour”.

Reforms and their effects on class consciousness

One of the paradoxes of British labour movement development is that you have to note that unions like the amalgamated engineers and the electrical trades were the quintessential unions of workers who formed part of the “labour aristocracy”. Yet for most of the 20th century those two unions were centres of communist and socialist activity, and both unions were led for many years by socialists and communists, whose successful industrial agitations increased the wages and conditions of those workers, often ahead of the rest of the working class. The very success of socialists and communists in these tradesmen’s unions won great gains for the union members and even to some extent increased their “aristocratic” status. That situation brings us right to the heart of the industrial aspect of the question of reform and revolution. Socialists, by definition, have to be the best agitators for improvements, but the improvements achieved sometimes slow down development towards the socialist revolution.

That’s one of the paradoxes of Marxist and socialist agitation, and one that ‘s never easily resolved. In Australia, many trade unions that were centres of successful socialist, communist and Marxist agitation also formed part of a certain “labour aristocracy” for most of the 20th century, even up to today.

I have discussed the industrial impact of the very large and influential communist party in struggles in the labour movement during the 20th century, and also the impact of the much smaller but equally proletarian Trotskyist movement on the successful struggle for improvements for the working class, in , The Communist Party in Australian Life.

It’s only necessary to cite the Amalgamated Engineering Union here, or building workers’ unions, miners and waterfront unions. These unions, often the centres of superexploitation in the early 20th century, won enormous gains under militant and socialist leadership, particularly after World War II, up to the mid-1980s. Many of the more recent struggles have been in defence of the gains of these so-called “labour aristocrats”, of which the most striking struggles in Australia have been to defending miners’ conditions against the levelling down modernisation of capitalism, and the partly successful, bitter class struggle of a couple of years ago to defend the perceived privileges (from the bourgeois point of view) of the wharfies in the maritime union against ferocious employers’ efforts to level them down.

The current struggles to defend the building workers in the CFMEU and the Workers First-led metalworkers in Victoria also have that aspect. Another current struggle with that obvious aspect is taking place now in the ports of the west coast of the US. It’s worth noting that the ideologists of the bourgeoisie, through their tabloid press, have their own version of a theory of “labour aristocracy” — the “new class” theory. They work themselves up into a frenzy of hostility towards the “privileges” of what they call the “new class” and sometimes even the “labour aristocracy”.

The theory of the “labour aristocracy”, which had some limited application in English-speaking countries in the past, is an archaic notion now in countries like Australia and Britain. What’s left of the “labour aristocracy” after the demolition of a large part of manufacturing industry, and the general change in the characteristics of the labour force, meshes in with other strata in modern capitalist society. As Rose McCann reminded us a month or so ago on this list, our Trotskyist-Cochranite comrade, Harry Braverman, wrote the ground-breaking and still extraordinarily useful book analysing the new stratifications in capitalism, and the question of alienated labour, Labour and Monopoly Capital, about 30 years ago. This book is still a primary guide to the social structure of the new categories of work and workers generated by modern capitalist development.

Phil Ferguson and Ben Courtice in their enthusiastic, “right-on” exchanges, talk loosely about yuppies etc, and the middle class, etc, without in that context recognising the fact that most of the people they are talking about are, in objective class terms, workers. This is despite the fact that these people may accept the bourgeois consciousness imposed on them by the ruling class and the media and don’t regard themselves as workers.

This, also, is not an entirely new development. In most periods of capitalism, working-class tories have been a significant phenomenon. In the 19th century in Britain, one of the biggest categories of employed labour was house servants, who politically and socially were conservative. The new, often atomised, workforce in service industries, the computer industry, etc, are objectively workers, despite the fact that bourgeois ideology dominates them to some extent.

As some of these newer sectors become organised in trade unions, a certain amount of working class consciousness begins to conflict with the ideology of the bourgeoisie in the minds of these workers.

Phil Ferguson is inconsistent in the way he uses this situation to reinforce his sectarian hostility to any limited reformist class consciousness associated with the phenomenon of labourism. He, and others like him, and the DSP (instrumentally making use of his arguments), say in one piece of verbal sleight of hand that 92 per cent of the employed are, objectively speaking, workers, and then they do a cute piece of arithmetic whereby they point to the fact, as also from time to time do the bourgeoisie, that only about half of these workers usually vote Labor. Then Ferguson manages, by a couple of other statistical tricks, to reduce the number of workers who vote Labour to a notional 30 per cent. He then throws in the obligatory contemptuous statement, “what does it matter anyhow if 30 per cent of workers vote Labour”.

What a piece of rubbish this is in Marxian class terms. What is significant about bourgeois workers parties, even the spectacularly deracinated one in New Zealand, is that in most periods, including the current one, the section of the working class that votes Labour, or is tied in with labourism, usually includes both the workers organised in trade unions and the most exploited sections of the working class, welfare recipients, the unemployed, proletarian ethnic groups such as new immigrants, and in the New Zealand context Maori and Pacific Islanders, as well as slightly left-leaning groupings among the “new social layers” drawn from tertiary educated people, often technologically trained, working in newer industrial environments.

I’ve demonstrated for NSW electoral politics in The People’ s Choice (see link above) that the intermediate strata vacillate between Labor and Liberal. In a surge to Labor, the Labor vote goes up among the new social layers and in a swing against it goes down the same social strata. In that sense I’d assert something that will drive Ferguson, the DSP and others like them completely mad: voting Labor, among the new social layers, rather than voting Tory, represents a significant leap in class consciousness from outright identification with the bourgeoisie to a primitive reformist social or class consciousness.

In modern conditions, voting Green, rather than conservative also involves a limited progressive shift in consciousness, and to complicate things even further, shifting from Labor to the Greens, as some people do, often involves a slight shift to the left within a vaguely reformist consciousness.

From these very current sociological considerations flow a number of the reasons for Marxist groups to adopt a strategic united front strategy towards Labor and the Greens. In particular, to place an equals sign between the so-called “two capitalist parties”, Labor and the conservatives, and then to concentrate your main fire tactically against Laborism (as the force deceiving the workers worst), as the DSP and Ferguson do, is a hopeless and bankrupt political perspective.

In the seminal discussion of these matters in 1921, Lenin tried to turn the tactical orientation of the early communists away from “scolding scoundrels” towards a strategic orientation to the British labour movement.

Modern trade unionism

In all the English-speaking countries, trade unionism declined dramatically between about 1987 and 2000, although it has now stabilised in Australia and Britain, and is rising slightly. In Australia a process of amalgamation has produced more bureaucratic union structures. The number of shop stewards has declined, and there has been a long period of very little strike action.

Nevertheless in the last few years the trade unions have recovered a bit, they’ve been renewed by a younger group of functionaries and organisers who are bit more leftist than their immediate predecessors, and there’s a modest rising arc of defensive struggles. It’s curious to me, that at this moment of significant trade union revival, extravagant discussions about the “rotten” trade union bureaucracy are being advanced, particularly by the DSP. This is singularly stupid. Socialist sects for 100 years have been writing off the trade unions. Daniel De Leon wrote them off in the US after being rebuffed in his activities in the IWW. Council communists have written them off for most of the 20th century.

I suspect Phil Ferguson doesn’t think much of the existing trade unions. I’d be interested to hear his rounded views on them. The rump of the Healy formation (with which I was once associated], now called the Socialist Equality Party), has a theoretical position that trade unionism from its inception was a fraud and deception (see David North’s pamphlet on trade unions). In Dave North’s universe the only slogan left for the proletariat is build the SEP, as both a maximum and minimum slogan.

I was a bit blown away, so to speak, when former US SWP leader Caroline Lund, long-time friend of the DSP, tentatively advanced the proposition, at a session of the Asia-Pacific Solidarity Conference in Sydney last Easter, that the old forms of trade unionism were bankrupt in the US, and that in her industry, the car industry, a workers’ vote for decertification of the UAW in a car plant had some progressive content because it might be followed by the establishment of a new, independent union.

Lund also advanced the proposition that some workers in the airline industry breaking away from the machinists’ union (IAM) to join a separate, smaller organisation of higher paid workers, might also have some progressive content. I don’t want to overstate this in relation to Caroline Lund, as she is someone who went into industry during the US SWP’s turn to industry, who has hung on in a car plant, doggedly engaging in political activity and even producing her own small industry bulletin. Her views warrant attention for this reason, even if they’re wrong, which in my view they are. I also got the impression in the session that she was engaged in some intellectual probing on the basis of her experiences, and that her propositions were work in progress. For all these reasons I don’t want “verbal” Caroline Lund and if she reads this post on Marxmail, I’d be grateful to her if she would expand her views on the US trade union movement further, for discussion.

Nevertheless, the fact that such ideas about trade unionism can be advanced by people who are veterans of the Trotskyist movement seems to have some significance, particularly when it’s associated in Australia with the DSP’s extravagant rhetoric about the “aristocracy of labour”, thrown about by the DSP as the substitute for a serious trade union policy.

To most proletarian socialists who have devoted much of their lives to activities in the labour and trade union movements, having both a revolutionary and a realistic strategic approach to trade unionism is of vital importance. From that point of view, I belong to the school of thought in which to write off the trade unions is political madness. Without serious work in the trade union movement, no matter what its ups and downs, and no matter what the contradictions of that work may be, to abdicate it is to abdicate any prospect of mobilising the social forces necessary for the socialist revolution. If socialists retreat from the labour movement, with all its contradictions and ups and downs, what other major social force can they base themselves on?

The strategic view advanced by the DSP isn’t quite the same as that of Caroline Lund. The DSP pays a certain lip service to the notion that a labour movement still exists, but by extravagant use of rhetoric about the trade union bureaucracy and the “labour aristocracy”, applied crudely to modern Australian conditions, what emerges is a very strange and rhetorical kind of beast. Lip service is paid from time to time to building a class-struggle left wing, and great literary interest is shown in some militant developments in the Victorian trade unions, but on this is superimposed the artificially constructed notion, drawn theoretically from Lorimer’s couple of fragments of Lenin, plucked out of context, of the “two equivalent capitalist parties”, Labor and Liberal, with the main immediate task being the smashing of the grip of the Laborites on the working class and trade union movement.

On the face of it, this is an incoherent and destructive perspective from a proletarian socialist point of view. The question that immediately arises in the minds of any Marxists with a different point of view is how can the DSP seriously advance this weird perspective and what motivation, force or social pressure can keep this perspective in place in a smallish socialist grouping, which ostensibly has the aim of socialist revolution?

The reality in Australia now is that the overwhelming majority of the members of the members of the organised groups of the far left are current students or fairly recent ex-students. Sociologically speaking, the far left is located in the stratum I have described as the “new social layers”. The most successful group on the far left, the DSP, has recruited, built and sustained itself for at least the past 15 years, in particular, from the new social layers. In terms of trade union implantation, the only significant number of members of far left organisations is in the two public service unions, and to a lesser extent in the national education union.

In previous posts, Ben Courtice and other DSP members, Jose Perez in the US, and Phil Ferguson, have poured ridicule on my breakdown of the composition of what you could reasonably call the left in Australia, particularly my rough figure of 20,000 as to its size. Perez asserts that the DSP is correct in excluding from its considerations all the elements in the orbit of Laborism, because by his judgement they are pro-capitalist. The same rhetoric pervades DSP-Courtice-Ferguson comment on this question.

Jose Perez says:

“Gould objects to the a priori exclusion of the leftists or socialists who are pro-capitalist from the project of developing the Socialist Alliance into a stronger and more coherent organisation, because that exclusion is grounded in these folks being adherents of the ALP. Which brings up the question, what is the nature of the ALP?”

The problem with this approach is that in practice, by excluding all layers in the traditional labour movement, it constructs the idea of a “left” that is only located in the new social layers. From this point of view, when the DSP occasionally still uses rhetoric about a “class-struggle left-wing”, it actually envisions a left wing composed of people like themselves, sociologically speaking, with the odd blue-collar proletarian super-hero, who is prepared to associate with their group. This is a farcical perspective. It’s a mental construction used to reinforce the practice of the far left, which is firmly located in the new social layers, and it has very little to do with a realistic strategy that includes any serious attempt to intersect with the traditional labour movement and the organised working class.

None of the foregoing is to meant to diminish the new problems for serious socialists trying to work in the existing trade union movement, presented by the undeniable increased bureaucratisation of the unions. These are concrete problems to be overcome, not ignored or wished away by a ludicrous construction in which the bulk of those on the left who are active in the traditional workers’ movement,are excluded or excommunicated from the “left” by a kind of semantic sleight of hand.

It’s easy to locate historically how this came about. Once the DSP got going, as an organisation based on the Cannonist-Zinovievist form of organisation with a “team leadership” in a relatively advanced, affluent capitalist country, the organisation became prey to the bright ideas and organisational preoccupations, and even the organisational egotisms of the leadership, which is a permanent caucus in the organisation, quickly and carefully stomping on any other source of political perspectives that emerge in the organisation, originating in the class struggle or the mass movement.

Changes of line and perspective only come from within the leadership in those kinds of organisations once the Zinovievist internal regime is firmly established. Those organisations also, in historical retrospect, have a strong tendency to throw up a supreme leader: one person in whom authority, power and leadership qualities tend to reside.

In the Australian context, the DSP eventually settled down as a homogenous Zinovievist grouping with a verbal rhetoric about the labour movement and the class struggle, relatively successful in building up its own apparatus, but located sociologically totally outside the traditional labour movement. In the real environment in which the DSP operates — the environment of leftist-moving non-labour-movement-oriented sections of the new social layers — the main organisational and physical competition is the Greens.

The Greens are infinitely more successful than the DSP in occupying the social space in Australia that exists to the left of the Labor Party in the new social layers. Nevertheless, there are enough crumbs around the social movements of the new social layers for the DSP to recruit new members and build its organisation.

It’s interesting to observe that after toying with using similar exposure rhetoric against the Greens as it uses against the Laborites, the DSP has drawn rapidly back from that because it is in real life much more reactive to public opinion in the new social layers and Green environment than it is to issues and public opinion in the labour movement.

The traditional labour movement, the Greens and the new shape of Australian society

In my universe, the politics and sociology of the existing organised working class movement is one of the most important question in developing a strategic approach. Here, I’d refer readers to my sociological construct above, and to my article on The People’s Choice. Trade unionism has declined percentagewise from about 50 per cent at its Australian peak in the early 1970s to about 30 per cent of employed workers now. From a Marxist point of view, the trade unions and the working class are still the decisive factor in any conceivable model of working class mobilisation towards the socialist revolution.

Despite the relative demobilisation of the workers’ movement for the past 20 years, it still exists and is reviving. When you run through the major unions in NSW, located in the blue collar or professional blue collar areas such as nursing, a number of trade unions in NSW, about which I am best-informed, have a lively, vigorous and militant existence.

NSW unions

There are eight or nine unions in this blue collar area that are growing again. The nurses’ union has been among the most succesful in maintaining and growing its strength. It has 48,000 members, who are in wage terms sometimes accused of being “aristocrats of labour” in the sense that constant low-key industrial struggles have led the NSW branch, in particular, to win better wages even during the rather adverse Accord period.

Due to certain historical peculiarities, this union has a relatively democratic structure, with about 300 functioning hospital and professional branches, eight delegates’ meetings each year of representatives of these branches, and a two-day annual conference of representatives of these branches.

The combination of constant battles against understaffing, the aspiration for professional and wage improvements, and the historically evolved democratic union structure, has produced a government and opposition situation in this union that originated with the substantial development of a reform movement in the early 1980s. The ideological dominance of the militants in this union has kept the union growing, even in the recent period in which the main official positions have been held by a moderate group, and the hold of the moderates is always a bit tenuous because of the existence of the militant group.

The democratic structure of this union allows for a free flow of debate and argument on major industrial questions, and in practice the aspirations and policy proposals expressed by the militants, effectively define the industrial atmosphere, which tends to make the union as a whole a very potent industrial force, and this situation underlies the atypical constant growth of the membership of the nurses’ union despite the adverse industrial climate.

It’s worth considering this brutal industrial reality: with the decline of manufacturing industry, in the Sydney region, a city of about 4.4 million, of the top 10 industrial concentrations of workers numerically, seven are hospitals and two are universities. RPA Hospital has 6000, Westmead has 7000, Royal North Shore has about 4000, and Prince of Wales/Prince Henry has about 5000 workers. The big concentrations of blue-collar workers these days are in warehouses supplying the retail trade, covered by the National Union of Workers the trucking and transport industry covered by the Transport Workers, and the constantly booming building industry (the left-wing CFMEU and the right-wing AWU).

On the left of the trade union movement the two unions most in the forefront of the class struggle are the CFMEU (the building workers union), and the Liquor and Hospitality Union (LHMU). The CFMEU is also a union of relatively well-paid “labour aristocrats” whose somewhat better wages and conditions are totally a product of the class struggle.

The other substantial left-wing union of current significance is the LHMU, whose members are mainly hotel and hospitality workers who are subject to the vagaries of the industry and who from time to time have outbursts of defensive militancy, usually organised by the union.

On the right, the main large union from a militant point of view is the NUW (the old storemen and packers union) with about 20,000 members, which is a quintessentially blue-collar proletarian organisation with a large number of immigrant workers, and which fights very hard for its membership. The recently deceased, and widely respected, secretary of that union, Frank Belan, was a Croatian migrant from the Dalmatian coast, who proudly had a bust of Lenin in his office, but who located himself for tactical reasons within the NSW right faction. Belan over many years led a number of industrial disputes in defence of his members’ interests, which made him the bane of the Sydney bourgeoisie in the retail trade. This union has among its staff of organisers and full-time officials, speakers of nine languages, almost all blue-collar proletarians out of the workplaces that they organise. It also has an important institution that has existed for 20 years, a quarterly meeting of the 300 job delegates, which discusses the current industrial issues and campaigns and is followed by a booze-up paid for by the union — a very sensible institution from an industrial point of view.

Other unions with a significant militant industrial aspect that are located within the dominant right faction of the Sydney Trades Hall are the Transport Workers Union, the Municipal Employees Union (part of the ASU), the electrical trades (part of the CEPU), the Australian Workers Union, and even the HREA (health and research union), which covers non-nursing staff in the health industry. All these Labor Council majority unions have a substantial and aggressive industrial aspect to their activities.

It can’t be stressed too much that the far left, particularly the DSP, have only a very tiny presence anywhere in the blue-collar unions. This is the case in NSW and in Victoria, despite the DSP’s rhetorical interest in the militant blue-collar unions in Victoria, and it’s even more so in the smaller states. In the landscape of the Sydney labour movement, the small number of members of the far left who are involved in unions are almost entirely concentrated in the public servants’ union (CPSU), and the NTEU (which covers university staff).

These unions, plus the Teachers Union, are also the three unions in which there is some support for the Greens, to the left of Labor. The great majority of unions, other than these last three, both their full-time officials and full-time staff, who number in NSW maybe 1000, their lay committee members, who number probably another 2000, and their shop steward networks that number another 7000-8000 are solidly located in what can be described as the Labor Party-trade union continuum, the labour movement in the cities of Sydney, Wollongong and Newcastle and the state of NSW.

Despite all the rhetoric of the DSP, there is such a thing as the labour movement, with a somewhat reduced organisational footprint, but very clearly with a still robust reality. It has a physical existence that can be seen, touched and even smelt.

To try to verbally obliterate the reality of the existence of the Australian labour movement, the ALP-trade union continuum, by rhetoric about there being two equal capitalist parties, Labor and Liberal, as the DSP does, is a very defeatist formula from the point of view of Marxism. It is particularly bizarre when it’s advanced by a formation, the DSP, which is almost completely located sociologically among the new social layers.

What strategic issues flow from all this?

Well, in my construction: the far left groups should adopt the following strategic orientation:

  1. First of all, have a serious discussion of all the historical problems of the socialist movement, and the outstanding tactical questions, between the members, as well as the leaders of the socialist organisations, which are for practical purposes, the ISO, the DSP, Socialist Alternative, Left Press in Queensland, the Socialist Party in Victoria, some smaller Socialist groups, and various groupings in the ALP Socialist Left.
  2. Second, maintain the useful and effective work done by some of these groups in universities and high schools to interest younger people in socialism, and recruit some of them to the socialist movement.
  3. Third, maintain and develop various agitations conducted by the groups, such as the Campaign for Refugees, the movement against Globalisation, the agitation against racism, etc.
  4. Fourth, commence a serious program of educational work, common to all the groups, directed at their members and supporters, combining discussion and development of basic Marxism, with examination of current Australian reality, linked with a thorough, comprehensive and dialectical account of Australian labour history.
  5. Fifth, the serious commencement of long term, patient and energetic rank and file organisation in trade unions and the working class.

In this discussion I have been charged by the DSP and others with advancing a general perspective that the whole far left should engage in entrism in the Labor Party. That’s not what I’ve been advancing at all. In modern Australian conditions, such a perspective of working solely in the Labor Party would be unrealistic, partly because of such matters as the existence of the Greens as a mass formation electorally in opposition to Laborism, and the fact that the betrayals of the Labor leadership constantly reinforce, particularly in the new social layers, a certain disillusionment with Laborism, which almost entirely goes to the Greens.

Personally, I engage in activity as a Marxist in the Labor Party and my perspective in that work is to assemble and organise like-minded people in that political environment. I certainly regard the Labor Party and trade union continuum as a decisive area for socialist activity and intervention, but it’s certainly a complex and increasingly difficult arena of activity. The Labor Party is a bourgeois workers’ party, with deep historic links with the labour movement and the working class, which show no signs of being fundamentally broken. This makes any orientation that lightly treats Laborism as an obstacle that can be removed by pure propaganda, an unscientific and irresponsible perspective.

I also have the view that in due course Marxists will emerge as a quite powerful force in the Green movement, but Marxist activity in that movement will have its own framework and logic, not too dissimilar to the framework and logic within which Marxists in the Labor Party have to operate.

What I do insist on is that socialist groups and Marxists outside the Labor Party-union continuum, and outside the Green movement, should have some sense of proportion and face up to the reality of the grip those two formations have on the masses in Australia, from which flows the necessity for a sane united front perspective, rather than the bankrupt exposure perspective.

The great German military strategist, General Alfred Graf von Schlieffen, the man who planned the strategy of the German general staff before the World War I, is famous for the following proposition:

“There are four kinds of officers, first idle and intelligent officers, these make excellent generals; second, industrious and clever officers, these make excellent staff officers; third idle and stupid officers, these make excellent regimental officers; finally, industrious and stupid officers, these are not to be employed in any capacity whatever.”

Concerning the fundamental question of a useful strategic orientation to the working class, with a perspective of organising for the future socialist revolution, the “team leadership” of the DSP falls squarely in the fourth category.



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