A week of venom and slaying Social Democracy


A few words from the demon

Green Left discussion list, December 8, 2003

Once again, a week is a long time in politics, and last week the election of Mark Latham to the Labor leadership demonstrated the truth of that proposition. It was also a rather frenzied week on the Green Left discussion list, particularly with Peter Boyle and the Paperclaycommittee going into hyperdrive. I seem to get mentioned in about every third post as a kind of deus ex machina, even though I’ve been busy with other matters.

Now I think it’s about time I dealt with some of the issues raised in the past week.

Latham’s election and the issues it raises

Latham’s election was unexpected by most pundits, including myself and Dennis Michael Berrell. For what it’s worth, I marginally favoured Beazley on the grounds that Latham is an energetic, innovating economic conservative, and it seemed as if his election was likely to shift the labour movement just a little further to the right.

I shared this view with the Albanese bunch in the Labor left, with whom I generally don’t agree, but who on this occasion seemed before the event to be correct in trying to stop Latham.

My view has changed since Latham’s election. Latham is still an energetic, innovating right-winger on a number of economic questions. In that respect the only real difference between him and Beazley is Latham’s greater energy and pugnacity.

It seems unlikely that he will drop off on economic questions, which sharply raises the question of the Labor left (in recent years generally supine on economic matters), conducting a vigorous debate with Latham, advocating a more leftist economic policy at the coming federal conference.

Having narrowly won the leadership ballot, Latham has certain advantages, but his power isn’t total, and a major area for the left to have an argument is challenging Latham on his rather conservative economic proposals.

Latham’s victory should create conditions for such a serious battle on policy, flowing naturally out of the situation. Serious debates on policy in the Labor Party and the labour movement can’t be artificially induced, but this set of circumstances creates the perfect conditions for a big argument about economic policy if the official left has the stomach for such a debate, and maybe it will have.

Latham’s demeanour since his election has been more cautious than might have been expected, and he has made some effort to veer a little to the left on refugee policy, while on the other hand trying to assure the bourgeoisie that he’s not going to tear down the US alliance, etc, which is hardly surprising from a newly elected Labor parliamentary leader.

By the manner of his election, Mark Latham has become particularly beholden to Laurie Brereton on the right and John Faulkner, Laurie Ferguson and Daryl Melham on the left. Harry Quick, who has been utterly forthright in opposition to the Iraq war, also supported Latham.

Brereton, who was so vital to Latham’s election, has a pretty leftist record on international affairs. He is a long-standing defender of the rights of the Timorese people, he has been forthright in support of refugees, and he was very public in his opposition to the Iraq war, and attended several of the demonstrations.

It may just be possible to assemble a broad coalition across the factions at the coming Labor Party federal conference to get the Labor for Refugees position adopted as a minimum position.

In any case, a big fight on refugee policy can’t be avoided at the conference, and that is one of the issues that may be used to revive the Labor left in new conditions. In this context I generally agree with Tristan Ewins’ propositions about linking the revival of the Labor left to a parallel attempt to mobilise a variety of popular agitations in society at large, outside the framework of parliamentary politics. That’s the only way a serious Labor left will be revived.

Latham’s leadership of the federal parliamentary ALP is now an accomplished fact, which all serious activists in working-class politics have to take into account. The speed of the acceptance of his parliamentary leadership by the broad mass of labour movement activists and supporters, and to some extent by the whole left of society, is real and tangible.

Leftists who don’t notice this phenomenon, or ignore it, do so at their political peril. There’s a long tradition in the labour movement of giving new Labor parliamentary leaders the opportunity to establish and prove themselves, giving them the benefit of the doubt for a time. The whole left of the labour movement should stand up to Latham vigorously, but courteously on policy matters, but properly respect his prerogatives as parliamentary Labor leader. That’s how the labour movement works.

There’s no alternative to accepting Latham’s parliamentary leadership for the next period and trying to move him to the left by a process of public political struggle in the labour movement. The Labor left should enthusiastically get behind Latham in the federal elections, but it should not roll over to him on any policy questions.

The reaction of the ruling class to Latham’s election

The initial reaction of the Murdoch press to Latham’s election was something approaching hysteria, and the vindictive attitudes of Piers Ackerman in the Sydney Daily Telegraph and Greg Sheridan in The Australian were quite extraordinary.

These reactionary journalists are the Defenders of the Holy Grail of the US alliance, and they were thoroughly alarmed at Latham’s past expressions of anti-Bush views.

Both Murdoch papers dredged up interviews with Latham’s ex-wife, who actually said fairly careful things, but her statements were beaten up to create a caricature of Latham. This didn’t go down very well with a large slice of the population who are familiar with such experiences of marriage break-ups, and don’t take too seriously expressions of hostility by former partners. Too many have been down that sort of path themselves.

The Liberal politicians, Costello and Abbott, also went to town, dredging up Latham’s past leftist statements on various questions and his popular expressions of a certain class animosity to the political representatives of the bourgeoisie. On talkback radio a number of old fossils carried on a bit about his crude language. None of this seems to have had much effect, other than to increase Latham’s positive standing with the leftist side of society, and even with the centre, where many are growing tired of the Howard Government.

By the end of the week the bourgeois press were striking a more cautious note, almost pleading with Latham to behave “responsibly”, because it was beginning to dawn on them that in the short space of a week that the Labor Party, with its new parliamentary leadership, may just have become a serious electoral challenge to the Howard government.

The palpable fear of the bourgeoisie is that Labor under Latham might defeat the Howard government. They are obviously afraid that Latham may be capable of harnessing some of the angry populism that exists in less privileged sections of the population that Pauline Hansen managed to channel into conservative electoral channels.

All of the above brings me to my basic proposition: the broad interests of constructing any serious left in society, and in particular a revival of trade unionism and the organised labour movement, would be greatly aided by the election of a Labor government and the defeat of Howard, and this means in the current circumstances the election of a Latham government with, as seems highly likely, a substantially increased representation for the Greens, and possibly the balance of power in the Senate.

The only alternative is the re-election of the Howard government, which would have a dramatic demobilising effect on the whole left of society and the left of the labour movement.

Chronic Third Periodists such as the DSP leadership, driven by their artificial schema that Labor and the Liberals are equivalent capitalist parties, constantly hover on the edge of an attitude that Labor and Liberal are Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Any serious Marxist realism suggests, however, that in current circumstances the difference between the election of a Labor and a Liberal government is anything but Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

The small change for the Socialist Alliance that the DSP leaders fancy might come from the defeat of Labor in the next elections would inevitably be swamped by the general further shift to the right in society. In working-class politics, “the worse the better” is a very dangerous attitude, and almost never has good results.

From all these considerations flows the clear need for the left, including the far left and the socialist groups, to place their main emphasis on the defeat of the Howard government and the necessary united front strategy to achieve that end.

Since Latham’s election I have had a careful look at the recent document about the coming elections that I wrote. Considering this document carefully, I decline to change a word of it. The general line of it has become even more relevant in the new conditions produced by the election of Latham. This change of leadership, it seems, has increased the possibility of the election of a Labor government and the defeat of Howard. That is the over- riding preoccupation of the masses and the activists on the left of Australian society.

Marxist socialists should be energetic and active, in a non-sectarian way, in this endeavour.

In a day or two I’ll post a critical commentary on the abusive tone and deep political hostility displayed by Peter Boyle and others towards the whole of the Labor left over the past week.

A week of venom and slaying Social Democracy

December 11, 2003

The last 10 days or so of discussion on the Green Left list have genuinely been passing strange. The discussion has demonstrated the strategic bankruptcy of the DSP leadership’s tactics towards the labour movement. This cycle started with an eccentric and nasty press release by the convenors of the Socialist Alliance, ostensibly directed at members of the Labor Party. This ostensible press release pissed on the 20,000-30,000 real members of the Labor Party from a great height.

It purported to commiserate with them about the lamentable choice they faced in deciding whether to support Beazley or Latham, gave them a rather pompous lecture about what political fools they were to be still hanging around in the Labor Party and ended with the obligatory declaration that if they were halfway decent socialists they would vote for or join the Socialist Alliance.

It would be difficult to caricature this approach, particularly its eccentric, arrogant tone: the three convenors of a tiny socialist cadre group who reckon they’ve got all the answers delivering a kind of political ultimatum to all the members of the Labor Party and all the tens of thousands of socialists and social and political activists in unions and community groups who are in the orbit of the Labor Party, that they have to immediately ditch their longtime political associations, snap to attention and join this absolutely decisive political formation, the Socialist Alliance.

The only thing that can be said about this strange and insulting press release is that if it were actually read by any of the tens of thousands of people in the orbit of the Labor Party it would probably have the opposite effect to the one ostensibly desired by the writers. Laborites would either scratch their heads in curiosity or react with intense resentment to some tiny socialist group giving them such instructions.

If they were to see it, the impact of this press release on the overwhelming majority of the left of Australian society who are in the orbit of the ALP would be generally negative. It’s obviously written for a different purpose, which is to whip up hysteria against ordinary Laborites among the few hundred activists and followers of the Socialist Alliance. Nothing to do with Laborism really, but a kind of eccentric bugle call to the 300-400 activists of the Socialist Alliance.

The discussion on the Green Left list through the week of Latham’s election continued in the same spirit, with Peter Boyle, the Paperclayman committee and others in overdrive. The striking thing about the discussion of Latham’s election and the developments in the Labor Party was the petty, hysterical and vindictive tone towards Laborites, Laborism and all its works.

Dave Riley insisted that people could join the Greens or socialists could regroup, the only principle was that it had to happen outside the Labor Party. Paperclayman asserted his hatred of the Labor Party, a pretty strange assertion. He might as well say he hated the Murray River or the rabbit-proof fence. Hatred of durable institutions with a proletarian aspect seems to me a dangerous guide to politics and an extraordinary piece of eccentricity.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks, while they certainly did hate the conservative misleaders of the labour movement, didn’t devote a lot of verbal effort to asserting that hatred. In the early 1920s in the debate about strategy towards mass Social Democratic parties of the day warned the Paperclaymen of that time against “scolding scoundrels” and spelled out some careful strategic notions about how to take on the historic task of displacing the bureaucracies of the workers’ movement. Their primary emphasis in this debate was the united front tactic. None of that for Boyle, the Paperclayman committee or Riley, Kerrvert, et al, just the hate, or even more eccentric, supercilious condescension, displayed towards ordinary Laborites and their concerns.

In the course of the week, an indigenous Laborite, Tristan Ewins, entered the discussion, putting forward some strategic ideas about rebuilding the left in the ALP. He got pretty much the same treatment, although the tone with him was a bit more circumspect than the intensely hostile tone adopted towards Bob Gould and Ed Lewis.

Boyle and the nom-de-plume chorus spent most of the week digging out of the archives Latham’s past right-wing statements, in a strikingly parallel way to the way the Liberals and the Murdoch press spent the week digging out his past left-wing statements.

Boyle plays a similar role for the DSP leadership to the one played for the Liberal leadership by Tony Abbott. He’s the brawler and the bloke who dishes out the verbal aggression. At the end of the week, he even made light of this role by asserting that he’d been having a little fun. Strange fun!

Two questions arise from all this hysterical anti-Laborite static and babble on the Green Left list. The first question is: why do Boyle and the others find it so difficult to address the substantial strategic problems posed by myself and others? Boyle tried the statistical approach in an attempt to establish that the Labor vote was dropping. All that Boyle succeeded in establishing was that the Labor vote fluctuated within a range over the past four elections. The range being between 35 and 43 per cent in a period in which the Greens vote, in addition to the Labor vote, is consolidating between 6 and 11 per cent.

To confuse things even further, Paul Oboohov got to work on his computer and to his own satisfaction established a mathematical model in which the Labor vote would dwindle away to very little. The problem with that is that voting behaviour is social, political, and in that sense dialectical, and tends not to follow oversimplified mathematical models.

Boyle, Oboohov and the others are frantic to believe the story of the bourgeoisie, that the Labor vote is fading away, but that’s manifestly not the case, and even if it were to fade away it’s absolutely clear that the Socialist Alliance would not be the electoral beneficiary of any fading away. However, with Latham’s election, it seems that the Labor vote is bouncing back, while the Green vote is holding on in the 6-11 per cent range.

Boyle et al studiously avoid addressing my core demographic proposition: that the Labor vote of 35-42 per cent and the Green vote of 6-11 per cent between them occupy the territory of the whole left of Australian society: the organised working class, the more plebian section of the migrant communities, and the leftist-leaning sections of the middle class and the new social layers.

Election results are important in that they give an indication of the political location of social forces, and if you judge by electoral results, the left of society is overwhelmingly located in the camp of Laborism and the Greens. From this set of circumstance stems the need for socialists to adopt a united front strategy towards Laborites and the Greens if they are to have any influence.

From that point of view, the hysterical, abusive demeanour of the DSP leadership towards Laborism, and rank and file Laborites in particular, is a sectarian strategic error of enormous magnitude. A feature of the week was the appearance on the list of an energetic Laborite, Tristan Ewins, who lives in Melbourne. He spelled out a series of ideas about remobilising the left in Australia, and also outlined a project for two email lists he’s associated with, one to involve Laborites, Greens, anarchists and other leftists in discussion and another to help reorganise the Labor left.

He got the usual lecture about not wasting his time in the ALP, although in more cautious language than the tone usually adopted by the DSP towards Gould and Ed Lewis. Then a discussion began to develop on the list, probably not entirely anticipated by Boyle and co, about what socialists might actually do in their various situations. This was precipitated by the response to Tristan Ewins and to a post by Allan Bradley in Toowoomba.

Bradley is an ex-member of the DSP, who generally supports the DSP politically and defends it strenuously. He spelled out, however, in fairly firm tones that in his situation in Towoomba he didn’t see much scope for developing a Socialist Alliance branch, so he had joined the Greens. He presented this in a considered and careful way, but without surrendering his general political friendship towards the DSP he stuck to his guns about joining the Greens and his reasons for doing so. He got a bit of a lecture from Marcel Cameron, DSP organiser in Brisbane, about the things he might do if he returned to the fold and decided to start a Socialist Alliance branch.

These were fairly routine propositions about setting up stalls and showing Michael Moore’s movie. This triggered off Dave Riley, who developed this theme a bit further and gave us warning that he’s about to prepare a handbook on how to run stalls, and other organisational matters within a Socialist Alliance framework. (I’m often a little cautious about generalised organisational schemes and schemas. I vividly remember the little pamphlet, Stalin on Organisation, so popular in the old CPA, of which there are still a copies up there in the Stalin section of my bookshop. The central theme is Stalin’s one contribution to Marxist organisational theory: “check up on the fulfilment of decisions”.)

I look forward to Dave Riley’s little handbook on organisation with genuine interest, because what socialists can do in modern conditions to build a socialist movement is at the centre of many of our problems. An amusing sideline on this discussion was that a new voice, Karen, who is possibly a DSP old hand who has been overseas for a while, waded in with an assault on Tristan Ewins, painting a stark picture of the boring, soulless activity that must be his lot in the ALP, organising sausage sizzles and fund-raising for reactionaries, at the same time as Marcel Cameron and Dave Riley were advocating a not-too-dissimilar program of activity to Allan Bradley, that he should carry out to establish a Socialist Alliance branch.

In several later posts, Karen went on at length about the terrible prison in which members of the ALP reside. (I’d say to Karen, in the world of socialist and left politics there are several structures that are considerably more prison-like and rigid than the ALP. Karen might reflect on that a bit.)

Karen will probably say, of course, that the activities of the Socialist Alliance and the ALP may be similar but it’s the end to which they’re directed that are important. This discussion petered out, which is a pity, because it was the beginning of something important and serious.

At this point I must register a bit of a difference with my close mate and Ozleft collaborator, Ed Lewis, who in one of his very effective posts made a throwaway comment with which I disagree, which could be taken to disparage attempts by the Socialist Alliance to trailblaze in difficult regions. Boyle made the predictable and not unreasonable reply that this trailblazing is a good thing, not a bad thing, and on this I agree with Boyle and not with Ed Lewis.

But the questions of effective public activity, raised by Alan Bradley, Shane Hopkinson, Tristan Ewins and Dave Riley throw into bold relief another aspect of the problems facing socialists of all stripes, whether they’re active in the ALP, the Greens, the Socialist Alliance or other groups. Forms of public propaganda activity are no longer as obvious as they once may have appeared.

The bourgeois media and popular sociology books are full of empirical observations about a massive decline in civil society: the number of people active in political parties has dropped, but so has the number of people active in traditional voluntary organisations: social, clubs, sporting clubs,etc. (After I wrote this, this afternoon Dave Riley put up an extremely interesting article on this general problem. He blames the Laborites for it, of course, which is inaccurate, but nevertheless he raises important questions in this post.)

Trade union density is down, and the network of shop stewards and delegates has declined. Socialist paper sellers clearly get a more modest response than they used to. If you took a slice through the far left in Australia in, say, 1978, at that time there was Direct Action, Tribune (the CPA’s paper) and the twice-weekly Workers News, and their combined weekly sales would probably have been 10,000- 15,000. The last newpaper seriously standing, so to speak, is Green Left Weekly, the technology of which is now far superior to the papers of 1978, but its sale is only a fraction of 1978 and the other papers have disappeared.

Even the bourgeois press, and bourgeois magazine circulation, has also declined. The obvious background to this is personal privatisation of social activity. People tend to do much more in their homes. They watch television, videos and DVD, and more and more they communicate by computer. Socialists involved in any kind of ongoing public propaganda activity are operating in a much tougher environment than 20 years ago.

In my view, simple propositions about purely propaganda activities of a general sort, literature stalls around general propaganda for socialism, are less likely to get a response than the have in the past.

This is the background against which people like Bradley, in smaller centres, are a bit sceptical about a simple formula of stalls, etc. They’re probably right. I’m in favour of socialists maintaining a fair amount of public propaganda activity, but it has to be more carefully thought out than in the past. Over- generalised socialist public propaganda activities are not likely to be carried out for very long by anyone, no matter how dedicated they are, and no matter how many organisational manuals they study.

Militants and activists are likely to throw themselves into concrete agitations about immediate issues, and the agitation against the Iraq was a classic example of a concrete immediate issue, but there are a multitude of others on all kinds of questions, and those agitations generate a certain momentum. Carefully thought-out socialist activity and leadership is of great value in many spheres of activity, but it’s carried out in different ways by left-wingers in all sorts of frameworks.

It’s to be hoped that a serious discussion about how to engage in socialist propaganda activity and other activity will continue in a calm way in a number of arenas, including the Green Left list and the Broad Left list.

But this all gets us back to the over-riding question of the united front. The DSP leadership should bury its assorted ultimatums to the ALP, Greens and others and get down to a serious discussion with other socialists, including the many thousands in and around the ALP and the Greens.

I hope to take up this discussion of the concrete forms of various groups’ socialist activities in later posts. It’s as hot as Hades tonight, and I’m tired. I’ll leave that for another time. Merry Christmas to everyone on the Green Left list.

PS. I’ve absorbed the point made forcefully by Simon Butler. I now accept the proposition that Peter Boyle and Kerrvert are different people, and I apologise to them both for assuming they were not.

PPS. To Michael Berrell. Your personal apologia is very interesting. I still can’t quite place you, but stick your nose in and say hello.

You don’t try to answer my questions as to what are your concrete proposals for socialist activity after your departure from the ALP. I’m genuinely interested in what proposals you might advance. I’d say this to you: we all make our own estimates of when to join and when to leave political organisations. I respect your decision to leave the ALP, but that does not resolve the question of the ALP.

Individuals come and go, but there’s no sign at all that the grip of the Labor Party and the Greens on the left side of society has been fundamentally shaken by any recent developments. If anything, the trend, or the movement, as the DSP likes to put it, is a bit the other way at this moment. Whether individual socialists like you or me leave the ALP or stay doesn’t resolve the queston, which is why I spend so much time arguing with socialists like the DSP leadership, and now yourself, who are outside the ALP, about the united front tactic. What’s your set of propositions as to how the obvious crisis of leadership in the workers movement can be resolved?

That’s a genuine question, and I await your answer. I don’t expect anyone these days to be able to present me with ironclad declarations ex cathedra, so to speak, on how these problems can be resolved, but I’m genuinely interested in what your current ideas might be on this problem. The truth is always concrete, and the issue is always what to do next.



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