Socialists and the Labor Party

by

Roger Barnes


Introduction

Bob Gould

In John Percy’s potted history of the Democratic Socialist Party, which is modelled in style and emphasis on James P. Cannon’s historical work about the US Trotskyists, and Zinoviev’s lectures on the history of the Bolshevik Party, a series of stylised turning points in the development of the DSP and its predecssors, the Socialist Workers League and Socialist Workers Party are presented.

The first of these is the battle with Bob Gould for a homogeneous Cannon-type party, versus Gould’s more multi-tendency and looser notions of organisation. The second historic turning point is presented as the expulsion of the Barnes group (the Roger Barnes group, not the later Jack Barnes supporters, who were also expelled).

John Percy’s presentation of this split is presented as an historic turning point. The physical issue in the split was indiscipline by one of the women comrades in the Barnes group in a women’s liberation meeting, in failing to carry out the decision of the SWL caucus, and John Percy presents it in rather catacalysmic, world-historic terms, as the beginnings of a disciplined Cannonist party.

The need for splits over small tactical matters is never explained except in terms of how vital it is to the nature of the organisation. The background to the split also included major differences over Labor Party entry, and Roger Barnes favoured the most extreme version of total entry ever advocated among Trotskyists in Australia.

An interesting aspect of his document is that he advocated that the SWL, having captured control of the New South Wales Socialist Left, formed in 1971, should be careful in trying to hold all the other elements in the Socialist Left in that organisation. Subsequent events, described by George Petersen in his autobiography indicate that was also a point of conflict with John Percy and his brother, Jim Percy. After the removal of the Barnes group, the SWL moved out of the Labor Party and acquiesced in the liquidation of the Socialist Left.

Roger Barnes’ views were a bit extreme in this respect, but his major document on this question, which was published in the SWL Internal Bulletin, is of intrinsic historical interest.

We intend to post on Ozleft a series of documents from the various revolutionary socialist currents in the Australian labour movement.


Socialists and the Labor Party

Roger Barnes

The ALP, both as a party and through its affiliated unions, which comprise a large majority of the organised working class, represents almost the entire political and organisational experience of the mass and mainstream of the class.

By and large, the working class gives its support to whatever groups occupy leading positions in the party, whether on the left, the centre, or the right. The ALP’s standing is such that identical political statements, made by an identifiable ALP member, and another person without this qualification, will be accepted differently, possibly to the extent that one is considered correct, and one considered arrant nonsense. This applies more specifically to statements made by any of the numerous bodies of the party.

The only other current to survive over a long period of time has been the CPA which represents a continuous attempt to build a vanguard party outside the ALP. Whilst at certain periods the CPA has succeeded in drawing the most militant and class-conscious workers to its ranks, it has remained relatively minuscule.

Ironically, it has grown in numbers every time it developed a “soft line” towards the ALP. Even in CP-controlled unions, CP political influence has been almost non-existent, and those unions have remained firmly affiliated to the ALP. In roughly 50 years of competition, through depression and war, the CPA has not altered the relationship of forces in any but the most peripheral way.

Hampered and misdirected by its Stalinism, the CPA has in the past made sharp turns to both the left and the right, but neither its advocacy of militancy at some periods, nor its attempt to gain public respectability at others, have been substantially to its advantage, vis-a-vis the ALP.

While successive leaderships in the CPA decry “entrism”, at almost no time in its history has the CPA not had cadres inside the ALP. In its early years, debate raged as to whether the CPA should be part of the ALP. Since then the CPA has always considered the ALP such a secondary and secret part of its work that it has never openly evaluated it at all.

In practice it has sought to remove its best militants from the ALP to the isolation of its own ranks. It has used its cadres in the ALP to provide a “unity” cover for CPA union officials. Because of its horror at the reformism of the ALP and the “backwardness” of its members, the CPA has been consistently backward about developing a political struggle in the ALP. Rather, it has sought to gain influence from deals, its cadre holding out against the real left from a position of left centrism, seeking and gaining official positions in the party.

At one period, when the CPA gained considerable militant support and the going was correspondingly rough inside the ALP, the Hughes-Evans group packed its political bags and removed itself to the CPA, wiping out almost in hours the residue of its political influence.

In the only event in Australian political history approaching a revolutionary situation, and with over 100,000 workers in one meeting alone calling for political solutions, the CPA, despite its efforts, was forced to stand well behind the sidelines totally unlistened to.

In the midst of the depression, the ALP machine, led by J.T. Lang, Labor premier of NSW, developed a mixed opportunist political program which was extreme leftist Social Democracy. Lang supporters coined the popular slogan “Lang is greater than Lenin”, the workers saw him as their real leader, and the bourgeoisie feared and hated him as the revolution incarnate.

When Lang’s government was dismissed by the NSW Governor, the working class reacted massively. But Lang’s inner group was their own right and left wing, and he vacated the field of action and left the entire movement floundering and without leadership. In the ensuing elections, after an incredibly vicious campaign, a conservative government was elected.

At the time, and since then, the CPA has ignored any analysis and conclusion about the necessary role of revolutionaries in relation to the ALP. The fundamental understanding required of revolutionaries concerning the mass movement is clear: at times of crisis, the ALP is not susceptible to sudden intervention by outside forces.

The role of revolutionaries is, that on the basis of political program, they work to develop as an alternative leadership, they construct a base within the mass movement. We actively seek those positions of influence which may become available to us in the branches and in the bodies of the ALP, which give us both the ear of the members and, perhaps more importantly, the ear of ALP supporters.

For revolutionaries in this period, the bold expression of a political line is more and more possible in the ALP, though discretion is still needed about revealing organisational structures, though this can be done openly with individuals and small sections that draw close to us. It becomes increasingly possible to open political questions in the branches, where such discussion has previously ceased to exist, both on a theoretical level and on the political issues of the day involving larger numbers of people than would be drawn to our own external activity of this type.

It must be remembered that the quiescence of the ALP is only a recent development, influenced by the postwar period, and that there is in the party’s history a long and valuable tradition of oppositional left trends.

It becomes more and more possible to invite individuals to our own activities and classes, and to encourage the support and participation of branches and individuals in outside demonstrations and movements. In this work we are conscious at all times of the imperative need to build an open section, and a press, both of which carry our revolutionary line in its fullest form, both politically and organisationally, and to which we recruit directly.

We are aware that not all members should have to work in the ALP if they are temperamentally unsuited to it, though, where possible, all should carry tickets and be in good standing (the work associated with nominal membership is almost non-existent). We do not court, though neither are we terrified of, expulsion.

Movements such as the antiwar movement have not presented us with any significant permanent base. Rather they have been part of a climate in which we have recruited and have then intervened in the movement with the young activists we had.

While in no way denigrating the validity of our activity in the antiwar movement we must recognise that it does not provide a base in itself, or even a base from which we can intervene in the ALP or unions. Activities devoted to large mobilisations, which are soon over, provide us with no continuing base compared to the ALP itself.

Reliance on the combative strength of largely youth contingents, demonstrating once or twice a year, with often low level consciousness on single issues does not significantly compare with the day to day contacts in unions or the construction of forces within the party which has enjoyed political predominance among the working class throughout this century. Nevertheless we see developments outside the mass party as influencing developments inside it, whether these be the radicalisation of youth, of women, or of advanced sections of workers.

We must be at all times aware that although the ALP rank and file reacts sympathetically to the development of movements outside it, at the same time ALP leaders of all political persuasions react by seeking on some occasions to ignore, on occasions to cover their political failures by scapegoating external socialist groupings.

From the Socialist Workers League Internal Bulletin, 1971

See also

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