Brisbane branch, Democratic Socialist Party
From The Activist, internal bulletin of the Australian Democratic Socialist Party, Vol 12, No 19, December 2002
I am strongly in favour of the DSP beginning to organise a broad socialist left current through Socialist Alliance. Initially I felt the timing to dissolve the party at our January 2003 Congress was too early as we had not yet consolidated our work with the International Socialist Organisation at all levels in all states, particularly in Brisbane. We needed more time for that discussion and grassroots involvement from both sides to really take off. I think I have been proved right by subsequent events. We desperately need to broaden out and involve people fed up with the two-party system, who want a fundamental change in society and the eventual overthrow of capitalism. Even if the bulk of ISO members decide not to come aboard, the DSP working through SA will give heart to a lot of independents not affiliated to parties and encourage more independents to join.
The removal of capitalism is not on the agenda of the Green Party. Hence despite their present popularity, they too will have to face this project sooner or later and be judged by their decision. In Brisbane we did try very hard in the early 90s to join up with the Greens through the Green Alliance campaign in the local elections, aided by Comrade Maurice S’s extremely hard work, but we were ejected in no uncertain terms by Greens leader Bob Brown and Drew Hutton.
I won’t say a lot about the SA project, many have made good arguments for the present projection and I wholeheartedly agree with it although the timing must be adjusted. Bit, I think to really make this new SA work and grow in a big way, we have to examine our own past. We talk about the Euro-communist parties never coming to terms with their Stalinist history but we have never honestly examined or come to terms with out own Trotskyist past. We correctly rejected theoretical Trotskyism, the theory of permanent revolution, the transitional program and building the Fourth International in the early 80s. We were saved through a close examination of the example of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, the Nicaraguan revolution, which taught us a lot. And we owe a huge debt to the FSLN comrades. We went back and reread Lenin and Marx in the original with the early three month party schools and began to see the flaws in sectarian Trotskyism. However we never honestly examined our tendency towards Trotskyist sectarian culture, the method of operating in the party, the method of accumulating party cadre and the functioning of the party leadership, norms which we inherited from the US Socialist Workers Party.
We have had a culture within the party of a totally homogeneous membership on all levels. For the ordinary membership, for a long time, it has been difficult to express a different point of view on any number of issues or topics. One was considered disloyal or worse still, considered to be developing petty-bourgeois tendencies or “being on the way out” of the revolutionary party. Or one was portrayed as succumbing to the psychological bullets of the bourgeoisie”, whatever they were. It is this lack of real democracy and the lack of the cut-and-thrust of open debate (without repercussions) which has driven a lot of people out of the party, people who should have remained members. Our ex-members now tally in the thousands. I am not saying all of them would have necessarily remained involved but our internal culture has forced a dreadful toll on the size of our membership. We must ask ourselves why we have remained at 300 members for over 30 years? There has to be an answer and it’s not the glib one of members getting too tired or demoralised or becoming bourgeois because they might own a house or a car.
An example of this is our continuing preoccupation with our ex-members. We have to accept we are partly responsible for their psychological problems, because of our past rigidity, bureaucratic methods of operation and psychological manipulation of individuals, withholding of information and so on. Let them have their conference on the DSP, they have a right to discuss whatever they feel they have to discuss, who cares? We made mistakes in the past, bad mistakes, but I accept responsibility for the decisions I made, although these people can’t. Too bad, we should let it go and be magnanimous in our disagreement with their viewpoints. One of the obvious mistakes was our setting up of a Task Force in 1984, an internal committee to hound out those members who had agreed with the Jack Barnes US SWP leadership on Afghanistan, and so on. It was a kangaroo court. There had to be a better way to handle that situation.
Another serious mistake was the turn to industry, as if we could change ourselves into the working class changing our jobs. This part of our history is so bizarre that I can talk about it at work as no one could possibly understand. I won’t go into a lengthy on our industrial turn. Thank God we changed our position on that one or it would have totally destroyed us.
We have formal democracy but certainly not a real democracy where members can say what they really think without being frightened of being dumped from a great height with endless theoretical quotes from Lenin and Marx. Most of us, working full time, haven’t got the time to find the suitable quote. To think one has to form a faction in order to express a difference of opinion is the wrong way to operate. Up to now, many of our dissenters have finally been driven out of the party. This culture has got to change. It is normal and healthy to have a difference of opinion. Most of us have had different experiences, different family backgrounds, different traditions, we will all have slightly different ideas on policies and strategies and tactics. It’s a part of our humanity and creative thinking on how to extend and influence the party. As long as we agree on the general line of march with an eye on the main game, the overthrow of capitalism, the small differences do not matter. We will have to relearn how to deal with those differences, but an atmosphere of tolerance has to develop inside the party. We have to have other methods of deciding when differences become significant enough to exclude membership. I don’t have an answer but I think it has to be based on oppositional activity (and even that has to be moderated) not simply on opinion.
I think this homogeneity developed because, as a Trotskyist sect among many in the post-war era, we had to have a defining line of argument that was unique to us and us only. On that basis we joined members and so we became a sect with a sect-like existence. Many or our line-arguments were based on an analysis of the Soviet Union. Now that has all fallen away as the Soviet Union has disintegrated; it is all past history and no longer really matters. This is the real historical basis for and alignment of the socialist left in Australia and a reformation of a broad SA in this new period.
In addition, in all of those 30 years, we never joined any working class families, men or women, who had children, who stayed members for more than a relatively short period. Most of our recruits have been the educated middle class. I think the reason is that the toll of being an activist attending meetings for three to five nights a week plus most weekends and working at a non-professional job which results in a drop in the financial support of one’s family. One can pay a huge price for being a member of a revolutionary party. Without a family to sustain you, life is simply impossible. We need a strong renewed SA to aim to have members for a life time, so that children, a relationship, a satisfying job (if you are lucky enough to get one under capitalism), obtaining a permanent place to live, is seen as totally acceptable for any member. It doesn’t automatically mean you have betrayed the revolution. In short, we have to recruit the working class and retain them as members. We must take into account what workers have to do to maintain a family life and to participate in a party life. This can be done if we allow for all sorts of levels of activity, if we ask people to contribute what they can, without fear of being passed over or without giving them a guilty complex because they can’t fulfil such impossible norms that we’ve had, although I recognise this is changing.
The life of a member of a vanguard party has been especially hard for women. It has meant that at some point in women’s third or fourth decade, they have to decide whether to forego party leadership and have a child and be regarded as selling out, or deciding to give up the joy of children and opt for total party commitment. We should not have to make such a choice. Responsibility for children should be regarded as part of normal life in the party. I am not saying that all women should have children, I am saying that having a family and a party life should also be a real choice for women. At the present time it is impossible to do both, either the children suffer or the woman ties herself in knots trying to do both, or you have to have enormous amounts of financial resources to survive. Children are still seen as an anachronism in the party, a debilitating appendage. That is partly why recruiting youth is seen as a priority because they have no such encumbrances. Even male members are deciding not to have children for the sake of the revolution. This can be a mistake and a recipe for disaster in the future when the cup of bitterness and resentment against the party spills over. Such an attitude has to be rooted out. We should aim to lead as normal a life as possible, to do everything normal people do and this should be incorporated into party norms. I do not wish to put a cap on young people’s commitment and the exceptional amount of work and time they put into the party but we must encourage a long-term commitment over their life-time, not just their youthful years.
I do not regard myself as disloyal for raising these issues, rather I think it is my duty in order to build a new type of party. I don’t know what sort of party we will eventually become. But it has to become much broader, it must be more tolerant of differences and ideas, embrace participatory democracy, real genuine democracy and not a bureaucratic and autocratic deformed shell. Otherwise, workers will not accept it and just leave.
I also think our method of electing a leadership is faulty where members elected on to the nominating commission will become the next newly elected leaders of the National Committee. Often I have gone to the final session of a conference to find someone has been dropped off with no explanation of why. I felt too intimidated to ask. Suddenly they are out of favour. It is not an open election. I don’t know what other method to propose but there are serious flaws with our present methods. All our norms of operation need to be re-examined to make them as open and democratic as possible and to change our culture. We were influenced by Trotskyist sectarianism despite our beginnings from the mass movement against the Vietnam War. We went imperiously close to becoming a cult through our close association with the US SWP but thankfully we fought against it with our independent position on Afghanistan in 1979. We have to be open-minded about our past and reassess our past methods of operation.
In this regard our documents should not be voted on as accepting the general line. Rather and explicit policy statement should be made and a formal vote taken so that it is much more precise about what exactly we are voting on. In general our organisational norms will evolve in the bigger party of the SA. They must lose their present rigidity and status of semi-permanence. The positive contribution that the DSP has built up over the decades is production of GLW, the need for members to sell GLW in the streets, a weekly financial contribution, our Marxist education classes and some form of activity. Although the latter should be extended into community groups, local areas of work in neighbourhood organisations, even school committees and so on, this should be regarded as a valid contribution to the overall work of the party. We will need a looser structure and to look to involving many more people in a wide variety of political work. Our past practice has been self-isolating and self-destructive.
In short I am making this assessment and sincere criticisms in order to build up a whole new movement that is absolutely democratic out of the SA, so that we can become a real pole of attraction to anyone moving in the direction of class struggle politics, of overthrowing capitalism, of building a new, better world in which everyone shares the wealth. I would be the first to admit that I have learnt an enormous amount from my involvement in the party. It has changed my life for the better. I have been reeducated as a functioning, more conscious human being. I just think we can do it with more success and longer lasting results. I think we are in a new period of international socialist renewal. We only have to look at the mass struggles taking place throughout Latin America and I am hopeful of a bright future; that we will be wise enough to learn from our long 30 year past in the wilderness and bring about a functioning change in human society.