Ignorant demagogy about the labour movement


And the history of the Communist Party and Labor Party

Bob Gould

Peter Boyle’s first response to me is very revealing, in style, language and content. It went up only a few minutes after my post, and he didn’t even bother to correct obvious spelling mistakes.

I have a humorous mental image of Boyle spluttering and very excited as he taps his vitriol into the machine. The spelling errors, of course, are trivial. But, along with the bombastic leftist language they indicate a hasty, kneejerk response. The political-historical content indicates the frame of mind into which the DSP leadership have managed to talk themselves, and to some extent talk the membership of the DSP.

They merge two separate questions: CPA strategy and tactics as a relatively small cadre group operating on the flank of the overwhelmingly hegemonic Labor Party-trade union continuum, and policies pursued by the CPA in the broader labour movement.

I’d be the last person to idealise the broad political strategy defended by the old CP at many points. Revolutionary socialists like me were often critical of the strategy of the Stalinist CPA in the broad labour movement, and in particular for its tendency to adapt to the most conservative, lowest common denominator in the labour movement. We often accused the Stalinists, including the trade union leaders, of a kind of double-entry. I’ve described this at length in The Communist Party in Australian Life and The DSP book of parables: Jim McIlroy and the Red North.

Despite this tendency to adaptation, however, on a number of broad labour movement questions the CP from time to time was hardened up, both by pressure from the ranks, particularly the trade union ranks, by the influence of traditional socialist ideology, and by the agitation of other revolutionary groups.

The classical example of an event like this was the situation in the workers movement from the Clarrie O’Shea industrial dispute, through to the middle of the 1970s.

Clarrie O’Shea (the Victorian Tramways Union secretary), who was a Maoist, refused to pay fines to the industrial court, or to open the union books to the court. The Communist Party and the Labor left mobilised a major wave of national strikes in his defence. The Tory government caved in, a representative of the ruling class anonymously paid O’Shea’s fines, and the penal powers in the arbitration act became a dead letter for the next historical period.

Shortly after this the broad Labor left split into a more militant group and a more conservative group, and the more militant group, the Socialist Left in Victoria, and the much smaller NSW Socialist Left, emerged as a force for a period in ALP politics. Clyde Cameron tried to bring in an Accord-type prices and incomes arrangement at the 1971 ALP federal conference.

The Victorian Socialist Left and myself, as the NSW Socialist Left delegate, led the opposition to this. The official left and the CP, under pressure from the trade union ranks, got on side with the Socialist Left and that wage-price freeze was resoundingly defeated at that conference. This set of circumstances contributed directly to the success of the wave of industrial militancy in Australia in 1972-1975, the so-called wages explosion and wages breakout.

The point of this is that all these battles over strategy and direction in the workers movement took place, as they inevitably had to, in the broad labour movement dominated by the Labor Party. At that stage, realistic tactics toward the grip of Laborism on the masses electorally did not lead to an Accord or anything like it, and the pressure to defeat it came in the first instance from forces inside the Labor Party, such as the Victorian Socialist Left and George Petersen and myself in the NSW Socialist Left.

The Communist Party, which was an independent organisation, mainly outside the ALP, was less vigorous in its opposition to that Accord arrangement, although it ultimately had to get on side, in opposition, because of the spirit of the times.

Boyle’s politically dishonest narrative is a piece of simple-minded, ahistorical determinism, which starts from his present theory, not from any accurate historical account of developments in the labour movement.

When you get to the 1981-82 Prices and Incomes Accord, for instance, the idea of such an Accord did not originate, primarily, inside the ALP. The inventor of the Accord (who really had a right to patent it), was Laurie Carmichael, the main CPA ideologue in the trade unions, who had never held a Labor Party ticket in his life. The CP, an independent party outside the ALP, was the ideological engine of the Accord, which was then eagerly picked up by the more conservative Laborites, as you might expect.

The Accord was essentially, in part, the product of the ideological crisis of world Stalinism, and was replicated in Stalinist organisations all over the world, including those in France and Italy, which were mass independent parties.

Concretely, when the Accord was adopted in Australia, initially at a select federal unions conference, the only union official who stubbornly voted against it was the then secretary of the NSW nurses’ union, who has been a member of the ALP since 1975. At the ACTU conference over Accord Mark II, the main opponent of it was Gail Cotton, the then secretary of the food preservers union, also a member of the ALP. In both these instances leading figures in the Communist Party, who were quite emphatically outside the ALP, were the main advocates of the Accord.

Peter Boyle’s short narrative involves a kind of almost lunatic semi-Calvinist predestination. In his universe any practical recognition of the still existing grip and hegemony of Laborism is the road to damnation.

To make this work, he has to chop bits off at both ends to make the actual history fit this schema that any association with Labor inevitably corrupts.

his is clearly untrue, and does not stand up well against even a cursory overview of the history of the labour movement in Australia. The history of the DSP, Boyle’s own political outfit, is instructive.

After all the betrayals of the Accord period, the DSP entered into quite elaborate negotiations with a Communist Party still quite unreconstructed in its attitude to the Accord, aiming to form a New Left Party. At that time, internally, the DSP leadership insisted that differences over the Accord should not be a definitive obstacle to forming a new party with the CP. These negotiations only fell apart because the CP walked away from the DSP.

Boyle’s second post is a bit more measured. He implicitly skites a bit about his capacity to get intelligence, giving us the minutes of the rival conservative coalition.

These minutes are pretty revealing, and show that the conservative coalition has contracted to a bit of a rump. Quite clearly, the dominant force in the conservative coalition, if you judge by these minutes, are the Stalinist organisations: the CPA, CPA-ML, and the Search Foundation, the cashed-up ghost of the old CP. The Laborites just go along for the ride, so to speak. But Boyle insists in squashing this phenomenon into his procrustean bed of all-pervading Laborite dominance. He deliberately insults me by lying about what I said. He distorts the fact that I noted that socialists can make use of the limited opposition to the war expressed even by Crean, into me wanting to build a movement behind Crean’s policy.

Well I can’t stop Boyle deliberately distorting what I say, that’s his business, but the kind of orientation I spelt out speaks for itself. I’ve been as involved as anyone else in campaigning to build an agitational mass movement for withdrawal of imperialist troops from Iraq, I just believe that a pedagogic attitude to the existing consciousness of a large part of the masses on the left of society, who accept the leadership of the Laborites, is useful in constructing such a movement.

Boyle makes great play of David Spratt in Victoria deciding at this point to leave the ALP. David Spratt is an old friendly acquaintance of mine. He is mainly a movement kind of activist, who is the main co-ordinator of the Victorian Peace Network, and in that context is frequently an organisational opponent of the DSP faction because his links are with the Trades Hall, the Socialist Left and lately with the Greens.

In other contexts he is one of the people the DSP pay out on quite vigorously because his estimate of the current situation in the antiwar movement is a bit different to theirs. There is no likelihood of David Spratt joining the Socialist Alliance.

He will inevitably join the Greens. His move from the ALP to the Greens is indicative of a similar shift among a much broader layer of movement activists in Melbourne. The DSP and the Socialist Alliance don’t figure in David Spratt’s universe, except as sporadic factional opponents.

The dead end sectarianism of the DSP leadership’s approach to the workers movement is expressed in this paragraph:

“Of course this is not to say that the antiwar movement shouldn’t welcome ALP members and even ALP branches into its ranks. The Stop the War Coalition has reached out very warmly to Labor MPs Harry Quick and Carmen Lawrence. They’ve been put on every platform possible and encouraged in any defiance of Crean’s standing-ovation-for-Bush and bipartisanship on the ‘war on terrorism’.”

This piece of political idiocy sums up the strategic approach of the DSP leadership. It’s exactly the sort of rhetoric that the Stalinists used to use during their Third Period episodes: “united front from below”, so-called.

This was an approach against which Trotsky, in particular, constantly polemicised. The vintage distaste displayed in Boyle’s comment that the Stop the War Coalition accepts “even ALP branches”, as if ALP branches were leper colonies, gives you some hint of the political outlook of the DSP leadership.

The eccentric view embodied in his comment that “the Stop The War Coalition has reached our very warmly to Labor MPs Harry Quick and Carmen Lawrence” is a bit like a rather self-important mouse reaching out to an uncomprehending elephant. The implicit condescending and insulting tone towards Carmen Lawrence is disproportionate to the realities of the situation. The Stop the War Coalition, while by no means a negligible force, is basically a smallish group of socialist militants.

It has some successful activities to its credit, but its footprint and influence in society is rather limited. Carmen Lawrence has probably just been elected national president of the Labor Party by a majority of the 20,000 members who voted. In terms of society at large, Carmen Lawrence is a considerably more influential figure than anyone in the Stop the War Coalition, and the ALP is a mass organisation with its primary base in the organised working class, which shares with a secondary formation, the Greens, overwhelming hegemony on the left of society.

Between them, the ALP and the Greens will get about 50 per cent of the vote in the next federal election. The Socialist Alliance will get inevitably get less than half a per cent in those elections. In these circumstances, to represent the Stop the War Coalition as some kind of great power graciously reaching out to Carmen Lawrence and Harry Quick is a grandly lunatic way of viewing Australian society strategically.

It goes without saying that I agree with Boyle about the need for the Stop the War Coalition, in which we are both involved, to respond with any forces that it can muster to international calls for major demonstrations against the occupation of Iraq in the New Year. In my view, the success of such demonstrations is more likely to be assisted by a realistic view of the influence of the Stop the War Coalition, and sensible strategies flowing from such a realistic view.



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