Triumphalism is not in order

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Socialists and the aftermath of the anti-Bush protests

Bob Gould

In my careful overview of the events in Canberra recently, A long march in Australia’s occult capital, I included the light-hearted but reasonably accurate observation:

“There was a certain amount of rebellious competition between the different socialist groups, with their red flags and their generals and colonels directing operations.”

This triggered an extremely heated response from DSP leader, Peter Boyle, who in part accused me of slandering the DSP by the observation (which doesn’t appear a reasonable take on it at all unless your mental universe is one in which all observations must focus on you because you are the centre of the world).

Boyle mainly goes to town about the Melbourne-based Socialist Party’s interpretation of its intervention at the Bush demonstration on its website, and he accuses the Socialist Party and to a lesser extent Socialist Alternative, of sectarianism.

From that a typical DSP leadership smoke and mirrors debate proceeded on the Green Left discussion web site all that week, on the terrain chosen by Boyle of the rather Potemkin Village Socialist Party’s highlighting of its actually rather modest participation in the Bush demonstration.

There is a certain amount of substance in Boyle’s accusation of sectarianism against the Socialist Party, but it is very much a case of an extremely black pot calling a much smaller kettle black.

The issue of the Green Left Weekly that reported the anti-Bush demonstrations is a vintage example of the DSP leadership’s diehard sectarianism towards the mass labour movement of Australia. There are no less than seven articles in this issue purportedly drawing the lessons of the anti-Bush demonstration and denouncing Laborism, Laborites and all their works.

There’s an editorial, the main lesson of which is the betrayal of the Laborites. There’s a main article on the demonstrations by Pip Hinman, again the main lesson is the betrayal of the Laborites. There’s the second part of Lorimer’s discussion of the Vietnam period, main lesson: Laborite betrayal. There’s a lengthy article by Jim McIlroy about the death of Jim Cairns, again with the theme of Labor betrayal. And several of the accounts of demonstrations against Bush in other cities draw the lesson that Laborite betray.

The most spicy and dangerous article of the lot is a smaller piece about a righteous battle of some trade union militants in Brisbane against the Doug Cameron machine in the Metalworkers union. This opposition ticket in the Metalworkers is a very serious challenge to the Cameron machine by a group of militants, which includes a member of the ex-ISO group of recent times, and some other militants, including some ALP activists in the union. The Green Left coverage of the battle reduces it to a contest between the Socialist Alliance and what Green Left describes as the “Cameron ALP machine”.

Strategically, imposed by Green Left, is something the Brisbane militants need like a hole in the head. Needless to say, it suits the Cameronites down to the ground, and they’ve produced red-baiting leaflets taking up the Green Left journalistic posture to try to discredit the whole metalworkers opposition in Brisbane.

The DSP leadership appears to have learnt nothing about the practical questions of the united front in the labour movement and the trade unions from the long history of the old CPA and the old Trotskyists in Australia. All they can repeat in trade union matters is a tired mantra, taken straight out of the worst Third Period excesses of the CPA.

The DSP leadership takes no notice of the more sensible practices of the old Communist Party in the unions throughout most of its history, to say nothing of the realism of the old Trotskyists in these matters. Everything, for the DSP leadership, seems to focus on their own hyped-up, exaggerated conception of their role.

The old Communist Party, in trade union affairs, when supporting militant teams, used to consistently stress that such teams were united groups including leftists and ALP militants. The formula constantly used by the old CPA was Unity Tickets, stressing the existence of a large Labor component.

The old CPA, apart from its two Third Period binges, happily both rather brief, was always extremely careful to recognise that the vast majority of unionists were supporters of the ALP and the vast majority of union activists were also in the orbit of the ALP.

It quite sensibly, in practice, recognised that the CP was a smallish minority. From this realism, combined with the competent and militant leadership given by many CPA members in unions, stemmed the CP’s real influence in union affairs.

For most of its existence the CP sensibly avoided the constant attempt of the right wing in the labour movement to position militant opposition groups as simply a “bunch of Commos”.

Rather than learning from history in a sensible way, Green Left goes out of its way to picture conflicts in unions as conflicts between its political vehicle, the Socialist Alliance, and the Labor Party. That kind of trade union strategy by socialists, is a formula for disaster.

On the Green Left discussion list, the point of view and self-promotion of the DSP leadership is sometimes expressed by Peter Boyle.

The current “general line” of the DSP leadership as it develops is also often expressed first on the discussion list by Paperclayman-MT Void, who is probably one of the ostensibly independent Socialist Alliance personalities who works very closely with the DSP leadership, and tends to express their views in the Socialist Alliance.

Paperclayman’s prime lesson from the Bush demonstrations and the current political circumstances is that what is primarily needed is further energetic exposure of the Laborites and heroic activity to build the Socialist Alliance because of the extraordinary opportunities of the current period.

He implicitly argues that this building of the Socialist Alliance must focus on the Alliance’s electoral campaign in the upcoming federal election. He also develops a critique of the Greens to buttress his proposition about the necessity of voluntaristic heroic activity to build the Socialist Alliance in the coming election situation.

At the first meeting of the Sydney Stop the War Coalition after the successful Bush mobilisations, the main political lesson being drawn by the DSP leaders present and by those of the ISO, was a sort of inane triumphalism. They argued that it was the organisational and political activities of the Stop the War Coalition, rather than the circumstantial reality, that were the main reasons for the much larger size of the Sydney demonstration, as opposed to the Melbourne protest.

In reality, two or three material or objective factors favoured the militant demonstrations in Sydney and Canberra, such as the historical analogies with the 1966 Johnson demonstration, which enabled wide publicity for the Bush demonstrations through the article in the Sun-Herald, the fact that an anonymous donor paid for a Sydney Morning Herald ad, and the fact that the rival coalition created conditions for publicising the two anti-Bush demonstrations by holding a rival event on the Sunday before (which was intensively leafleted by StWC activists).

These were in fact the main material reasons for the difference of magnitude in the demonstrations, and this fortuitous combination of events also flowed on to the Canberra demonstration.

Rather than use the success of the Sydney and Canberra mobilisations as a lever to attempt to rebuild the unity of the antiwar movement, which had been disrupted by the splitting activities of the right (now organised in the rival Sydney Coalition for Peace and Justice), the DSP leadership adopted the posture: “what could you expect from the rotten Laborites”, and while they favoured unity, they were not too concerned about the continuation of the split.

Both the DSP leadership and the ISO leadership used extravagant rhetoric about how it was possible to build a large antiwar movement in Sydney on the basis of local groups. This is, in fact, a mystical conception. Two or three local groups exist, but to some extent even they are vegetating, and there is very little indication of the development of other local groups. The talk of big possibilities of local antiwar groups is largely hot air, based not on a sober assessment of the possibilities but on the wishful thinking of the socialists involved in the antiwar movement. The real lessons of the anti-Bush demonstrations are:

  1. The socialist groups did achieve a great deal by working hard to build demonstrations in the face of the passivity of the more conservative sections of the movement. Pride in this achievement by the socialist groups is entirely reasonable.
  2. The intelligent and forthright attention-grabbing agitation of the two Greens Senators in the Parliament was a major contributing factor to the impact of the demonstrations outside the Parliament. The Greens were in fact the main electoral beneficiaries of the anti-Bush mobilisations.
  3. Despite the equivocal posture of the leadership of the labour movement, the presence of major Labor Party figures such as Carmen Lawrence, who is the new national president of the ALP, and Harry Quick, the courageous independent Labor leftist from Tasmania, both helped build the demonstrations, and helped draw attention to the opposition to the Iraq war throughout the labour movement and society in general.
  4. Despite the ambiguous motivation of the Labor parliamentarians’ letter presented to Condoleeza Rice, the guarded opposition to the war in Iraq expressed in it, and Labor opposition leader Simon Crean in his speech to Bush, also were contributing factors to the possibility of building a broad mass movement in Australia for the withdrawal of imperialist troops from Iraq.

Socialists in Australia need to go forward to build a broadly based antiwar movement in the above spirit without sectarianism. The kind of triumphalism we have seen in the aftermath of the Bush mobilisations can only be a barrier to such an endeavour. In particular we need to use the relative success of the Sydney and Canberra mobilisations to press the more conservative forces in the labour movement to rebuild the unity of the antiwar movement across the political spectrum of the labour movement.

Discussion, Discussion

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