The united front, Labor and the Greens

by

A response to Nick Fredman

Bob Gould

It’s pleasing to see Nick Fredman’s Damascus-road conversion to one half of my tactical propositions — the half that says Marxists should adopt a united front approach to the rapidly developing Greens. Even on the second part of my tactical approach — the idea that Marxists should adopt a united front strategy towards the bigger and more entrenched aspect of class politics in Australia, what I describe as the ALP-trade union continuum — Fredman has softened a bit.

He no longer rejects this as out of the question, but says now is not the time. That’s an improvement.

These are very important questions. It’s clear that Fredman’s new view is not universal in the DSP. One of two contributors in the DSP’s pre-conference discussion in The Activist, no. 13 (October), who is clearly an enthusiastic supporter of the current line of the “team leadership”, says about the question of the Greens:

“Our orientation towards grassroots activists in the Greens also needs to be carefully thought through when the differentiation between politicians and the party’s activist base becomes further exposed, as has historically occurred. At the moment Greens Senator Kerry Nettle still gives the appearance to all and sundry of being squeaky clean and not ambitious &mdasah; and oriented to grassroots activism.”

This acid comment is a snapshot, a distillation, of the sectarian mentality current in the DSP, encouraged by the “team leadership”. It’s a political cast of mind that involves an a priori assumption that all the DSP’s significant political opponents on the left will inevitably betray. It’s pretty stupid, in relation to the rapidly developing Green formation, which is now much, much bigger than the DSP nationally, with perhaps 5000 adherents compared with the DSP’s 350.

Most of the major figures who’ve emerged in the Green movement, although not all by any means, are, by any rational standard, fairly serious left-wingers. The bald assertion that the Australian Greens will go the same way as the German Greens is by no means obvious to anyone except the “team leadership” of the DSP.

Take Kerry Nettle: she’s perhaps a bit on the dour side — every bit as dour, in fact, as the person in the DSP who writes her off so easily. But anyone who has encountered Ms Nettle who hasn’t noticed that she’s a forceful, committed, thoughtful left-winger on major political questions, is not very observant.

Similar considerations apply to many of the prominent figures who have emerged nationally in the Greens. A number of them are quite convinced socialists and left-wingers. It’s a bit eccentric that Nick Fredman says “every Green in parliament (15 now federal and state?) is a lever for working people to fight the ruling class, though a socialist parliamentarian would be a better lever”. What a DSP-centred piece of pretentious nonsense. Quite a number of the prominent Green personalities are socialists by any reasonable understanding of the word — they’re just not members of the DSP.

There is a certain political problem within the Green movement, in my opinion, from a Marxist point of view. That problem is the presence of a certain hostility to modern life, industrial production, migration, etc, that stems in part from the overall concern with the environment that’s a major impulse for Green politics.

But even to a rather jaundiced sceptic in such matters, like myself, the surprising thing is how little this underlying attitude seems to affect day-to-day Green politics. The nitty gritty of that kind of problem is, of course, the question of large-scale continuing migration to Australia. The interesting and heartening thing about the contemporary Green political movement is that, despite perceived problems with the environment, opponents of substantial migration to Australia seem to be in a tiny minority in the Greens.

In the day-to-day struggle, the Greens have been extremely forthright and humane in their defence of refugees, which is a kind of implicit rejection of fears about mass migration. A very large number of socialists and left-wingers of all sorts have flocked into the Greens, and that movement of left-wingers will obviously explode after the Cunningham by-election result.

Predictions about the Australian Greens’ inevitable development in the same direction as the German Greens seem to me to be largely based on DSP “team leadership” resentment of the obvious fact that the Green formation now, for practical purposes, occupies all the electoral space to the left of the ALP-union continuum, and much of the other space to the left of the ALP.

The DSP and the revival of the Labor left

The most significant development in the ALP-trade union continuum in the past year has been the revival of a cross-factional left after a long period of quiescence. The main new example of this has been the rapid development of Labor for Refugees in a number of states, with a new generation of young activists spearheading it, and the emergence of a certain militancy and even “leftism” in the trade union base of the Labor Council of NSW, which was in a previous generation the intellectual powerhouse of the Labor right. The same supporter of the DSP “team leadership” dismisses Labor for Refugees, in the same contribution to the DSP internal bulletin, in the same sweeping and DSP-self-interested way that she dismisses Kerry Nettle.

“The proposal to set up an MP/rank-and-file committee to develop a policy for endorsement later is nothing more than a stalling, diversionary tactic; not to mention redundant given the given the submissions to the inquiry by former ALP premier Neville Wran and former prime minister Bob Hawke and the endorsement of Labor for Refugees at the majority of state conferences earlier this year. The Labor for Refugees leadership are misleading the ranks. Rather than taking up the fight to change ALP national policy, the Labor for Refugees leadership is leading the retreat.”

Same story as the Greens: not being the DSP, the Labor for Refugees activists will, of course, inevitably betray. What sectarian rubbish that view of the world is. Like most stupidities, this view contains an element of truth. From the point of view of the section of the ALP leadership strenuously defending the backward refugee policy, setting up the committee is a delaying tactic, although it must be noted that some parts of the ALP right, such as Senator Robert Ray, strenuously opposed setting up such a committee, regarding it as too much of a concession by Crean to the movement in support of refugees.

From the point of view, however, of the Labor for Refugees activists from a number of states, setting up the committee, with a major focus on a further public policy discussion, was a considerable political victory in the ALP, and gives scope for the continuance and expansion of the refugee agitation.

Labor for Refugees conducts a struggle inside the ALP on the refugee question and participates vigorously in the external public agitation about refugees as well. One result of the Cunningham by-election will be to give a bit of a fillip to the agitation of Labor for Refugees, inside and outside the ALP, and change the attitude of anyone in the ALP who was confused on the refugee question.

This DSP member’s embittered assertion that the Labor for Refugees leadership will inevitably betray is just another example of how the DSP “team leadership” tends to regard the world of politics as focussing on the sun of the DSP, and to encourage that view in the DSP ranks.

Ben Courtice and Nick Fredman, in a number of posts, make scathing comments about large numbers of individual ALP leftists they’ve encountered. Ben makes some throwaway remark about the unpleasantness of having worked with some Laborites, which raises the question of what the assorted Laborites, so easily demonised, thought of working with Nick or Ben.

That approach to working-class politics at the personal level is pretty short-sighted. Over nearly 50 years of activity on the extreme left of Labor politics, I have personally collided with thousands of people, usually to my right, and sometimes to my sectarian left, but it’s a completely false approach to politics to write off so easily the people with whom one collides.

I have no illusions at all, on the basis of personal experience, about many people who form part of the ALP left, even quite a few of the younger ones. Courtice’s and Fredman’s constant scolding of scoundrels, to use Lenin’s phrase, isn’t much help. There is constant bureaucratic pressure in the apparatuses of the workers’ movement, but there are also constant forces of renewal from the base of the class struggle, which is the force on which a socialist agitator should usually base himself or herself.

The power of any bureaucracy is rarely total. A cast of mind in which you manufacture categories, so that the bulk of the people on the left of the labour movement, with whom Marxists sometimes collide, don’t form part of the left, because of your collision with them, is just a form of mystification, and self-defeating mystification at that.

Serious Marxists sometimes have to collide with other people on the left on points of principle, and on other occasions they have conflicts with others on practical day-to-day interests. It’s the height of dopiness to elevate such collisions to a level where, by definition, one’s opponents no longer form part of the left.

This particularly applies to the left individuals and forces in the ALP-union continuum. As loyal supporters of the DSP “team leadership” and its current strategic orientation, Fredman and Courtice have to say there’s something crook about most ALP leftists, because in the final analysis, according to the DSP, they carry the “vicious germ of Laborism” from the “second party of capitalism” into everything they touch.

That’s a rather fantastic view, which stems from a false theoretical construction, and it leaves out of the equation the aspect of the ALP as a bourgeois workers’ party — which includes the relationship with the trade unions and the organised working class.

Many Marxists have a fantasised view of the way capitalist society works in general. They write and talk as if there’s a kind of executive committee of the international capitalist ruling class that dominates the world. At its most extreme, this kind of primitive Marxist view verges on conspiracy theory.

The DSP’s view of Laborism has similar qualities to this primitive Marxist view of the nature of the ruling class in capitalist society. The DSP “team leadership” writes and talks as if there’s some demonic self-conscious force at the head of Laborism carrying the instructions of the ruling class into the working class and the labour movement.

Well, there are some moments in Labor history that do look a bit like that, such as the early Accord period in Australia, and the moment of Blairism in Britain. Even at such moments, this view of how thing actually work in mass labour parties, bourgeois workers parties, is a bit mystical, and tends to ignore the fact that a large part of mass workers parties are bureaucracies that balance between the workers who elect them and the political pressures that bear down on them from the bourgeoisie, who dominate society.

In bourgeois workers’ parties such as the ALP, in most periods, the idea of a systematic, deliberate, self-conscious, Laborist program of betrayal is a bit of a fantasy. In most periods, including the current one in Australia, the ALP is a mass labour movement organisation, a bourgeois workers party, in which there are many contradictory forces and influences, a significant part of which come up from the base of the workers’ movement, particularly the trade unions. The unions are frequently in implicit or explicit conflict with the economic pressures exerted by the bourgeoisie, which are often, it’s true, transmitted through sections of the Labor leadership. Nevertheless the outcomes of conflicts derive from an interplay between all these forces. Sometimes, in the recent period, there have been defensive victories, such as the defeat of electricity privatisation in NSW, and the fact that the federal Labor caucus has been forced to oppose the further privatisation of Telstra.

Another force at work in the Labor Party is the subjective sentiments of the membership. Most ALP members, despite many reformist illusions, and a long period of betrayals and defeats, are nevertheless solidly on the left of society and many regard themselves as socialists.

I find the Courtice-Fredman view of individual ALP members they’ve encountered ridiculous, pretentious and politically rather stupid. What use is that? It’s not even “scolding scoundrels” as Lenin used to say, about ritual incantations by Marxists against treacherous Labor leaders, it’s ritual abuse of the rank and file of a large part of the organised workers’ movement, and that is a really mad posture for members of a tiny Marxist minority to adopt.

Ritual pomposity towards the bulk of the left of the labour movement has become the trademark of the DSP, and it’s a damaging trademark.

Ben Courtice and Peter Boyle, in a number of posts, attack me with the assertion that I’m trying to divert the energies of socialists into fruitless activity in ALP branches, and in passing they mystify ALP branches and structures. The ALP-trade union continuum is a heterogeneous, large, diverse, popular movement. In practice, in Australia, the activity of this political microcosm mainly focuses in the individual states and regions. Each state has a diversity of factions, interest groups and forces and cultural influences at work in the labour cosmos.

I’ve lived through a number of upsurges of radicalism in this heterogeneous movement, and a number of ebb tides of defeated radicalism. My apprenticeship in labour politics was in the early 1950s during the great upsurge in which the grip of the Catholic Action Groupers on the ALP and the unions was broken by a leftist upsurge, and I was one of the foot soldiers — the grunts.

A little later, having served my apprenticeship, and being part of a small revolutionary socialist group, I started to appear at ALP state conferences as a noisy, young leftist agitator. In the mid-1960s, when the Vietnam War unfolded I was the main initiator in Sydney of the most militant, and for a period the most popular wing of the movement against the Vietnam War, and there was no Chinese wll between my internal activities in the ALP and the mass agitation that I helped lead in society against the war. In fact, my modest niche in ALP politics was of great assistance in developing the mass movement against the war in the streets, in the context in which the ALP parliamentary leader, Arthur Calwell, to his great credit, took a strong stand against the war.

During this period there was a vast “Vietnam levy” right across the country, pouring into ALP branches and transforming them. This period culminated in the election of the Whitlam Labor government. Despite disillusionment with the conservative policies, on many questions, of the Whitlam government, there was a further “Whitlam levy” into the ALP due to the anger in the population about Governor General Kerr’s dismissal of the Whitlam government.

This generation dominated the ALP into the late 1980s and was, among other things, the popular base of the mid-1980s Labor Against Uranium movement. There were all kinds of ups and downs during this period. There was a 1971 Socialist Left faction that emerged in NSW that managed among many other things to elect me as its only delegate to the 1971 ALP federal conference, where the left defeated Clyde Cameron’s proposals for a wage and price freeze (an Accord-type arrangement between the ALP and the unions), and at which I moved a resolution for the abolition of ASIO (the political police) which was almost carried.

After that conference the DSP asserted itself in this 1971 ALP Socialist Left, captured organisational control of it, and then acquiesced in its liquidation after all the independent forces in it, including myself and South Coast Marxist Labor MP George Petersen had departed. For an account of the ups and downs of battles in the ALP in this period, see George Petersen’ s self-published autobiography, George Petersen Remembers, and Red Hot, the biography of Nick Origlass by Hall Greenland.

Even at the start of the Accord period, in the 1980s, there was a certain mobilisation in the ALP, in which the left, led by energetic factionalists such as Peter Baldwin, wrenched hegemony from the right wing in inner-Sydney ALP branches. In the same period in the early 1980s, socialists associated with me conducted a big battle at a series of ALP conferences, particularly on the question of hospital closures and psychiatric hospital closures and the Richmond Report, which was associated with a big industrial agitation in the community by the nurses’ union against hospital closures and the Richmond proposals.

As the Accord period commenced and wore on, internal life in the ALP became more quiescent, scope for socialist agitation in the ALP-trade union continuum narrowed, and such agitation became more difficult. Many leftist members drifted out of the ALP. Nevertheless, most real members of the ALP remain to some extent on the left of society, and any new events that throw up leftist rebellion in society at large inevitably throw up leftist rebellion first in the unions and then in the ALP. It’s from these circumstances that the need for a strategic united front towards Laborism derives.

Kerbs and gutters

Over many years, I’ve often encountered the shock felt by leftists with their minds on higher things, who join an ALP branch and discover the awful reality that for a lot of the time ALP branches, being real organisations existing in their communities, seem to be dominated by municipal preoccupations, such as kerbs and gutters.

I’ve encountered not a few leftists who claim to have run away from the ALP in shock at such pedestrian preoccupations. A sensible Marxist socialist obviously doesn’t spend most of their time on such questions, but it’s smart to have a realistic interest in such matters because, after all, they affect the day-to-day lives of ordinary people.

In the real life of a contradictory, heterogeneous bourgeois workers party such as the ALP, seemingly pedestrian human interests are a big part of the internal life of the organisation. In my experience, as a socialist agitator who has operated in the ALP one way or another for large parts of my political life I’ve found an engaged approach to such local questions covers you for a multitude of political sins, such as vigorous advocacy of socialist and anti-imperialist politics.

For many years from the 1950s to the 1980s, and now again at the present time, I’ve found that a bit of energy on local issues was sufficient to persuade often quite conservative members of the ALP to elect you to state conference, the big parliament of the labour movement, where all the big political questions are fought out and where I and others often played a vocal role as socialist agitators. Socialists in Labor politics ought not be too contemptuous of kerbs and gutters.

As we speak, a big, local issue has erupted in the community and the Labor Party in South Sydney, where I live and operate my bookshop. With the apparent acquiescence of the housing minister a major developer has proposed to redevelop the Erskineville housing estate. This estate is an old state Housing Commission community with quite a lot of open space and the developer proposes what is now called a private-public venture in which a large high-rise development of flats to be sold in the private marketplace would be the dominant feature, increasing the housing density dramatically and effectively displacing the existing community, many of whom are retired people.

This proposal that the Housing Commission should sell this old and stable example of community housing has produced enormous local opposition. There have been several noisy and boisterous community meetings on this issue, at one of which I spoke and got an enthusiastic reception.

The ALP branches in the area are mobilising mightily to light a fire under the state Labor government in defence of the Erskineville estate against the threat of this kind of mad, capitalist modernisation. A significant socialist presence in the ALP is a very useful thing in these kinds of battles.

The reality of the ALP-union continuum as a mass movement, a bourgeois workers party, is that levels of interest and involvement wax and wane. There are upsurges and ebb tides. Socialist politics isn’t religion. In some periods of downswing most socialists, including me, don’t spend a lot of time on the detail of ALP internal manoeuvring. What matters, however, is identifying openings in periods of upsurge, even small upsurges, such as the one that exists right now.

From that point of view a Marxism that can’t comprehend the need for a strategic and practical united front approach to the ALP-trade union continuum, is a useless Marxism.

Discussion

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