Anticipating the death of Laborism


The wish is father to the thought. Dick Nicholls and the DSP leadership anticipate the death of Laborism

Bob Gould

Dick Nicholls, who fancies himself as a bit of a humourist, puts his name to a line article, Revive the ALP? Put it out of its misery in Green Left Weekly on the current leadership upheaval in the Labor Party that could qualify as one of Nicholls’ baroque pieces of satire, except for the fact that the DSP leadership is clearly deadly serious.

With all the authority that the DSP believes its non-existent electoral vote gives it, Nicholls treats the 47 per cent two-party preferred Labor vote in the latest federal election as a fundamental crisis that will lead to the demise of the ALP.

This is DSP leadership wish-fulfillment madness in the extreme. Nichols even puts it into words, baldly saying the Labor Party should wind up and go out of business (in his headline “Put it [the ALP] out of its misery”), and he writes as if that’s a likely possibility.

Unfortunately for Nicholls and the DSP leadership, Laborism has proved surprisingly resilient and has revived dramatically after many past crises. The groups that have become extinct are often socialist sects. There’s no question that we living through a rather conservative period at the moment, but there’s no indication that the present crisis will be terminal for Laborism.

The Labor Party is unlikely to be removed from the political scene other than by major internal upheavals from the left. The current push to shift Labor to the right poses a very clear question for socialists: do they applaud the possible shift of Labor to the right because they think that may open up space for them, or do they fight hard against any shift to the right?

The answer to this dilemma is blazingly obvious from a Marxist point of view. To applaud, or not oppose, shifting Labor to the right is complete madness for the reason that the further shift of Labor to the right will only increase the demoralisation of the working class and left forces in the current conservative period. The idea implicit in Nicholls’ story that the shift of Labor to the right will almost automatically lead to its replacement by a more substantial leftist force is stupid fantasy. Past working-class history in Australia, and pretty well everywhere else, underlines this point.

For good measure, Nicholls ends his article on the note that a key struggle in the labour movement is to stop unions giving money to the Labor Party. His implication, obviously, is that the unions should give money to the DSP/Socialist Alliance. The DSP these days is a bit of a diehard sect, but even for the DSP this looks like a case of Nicholls having taken leave of his senses.

There certainly is a crisis of leadership in the labour movement, which has been sharpened by the Labor Party’s election defeat and the immense bourgeois pressure on the Labor Party to shift to the right. This pressure is particularly strong on industrial relations policy, based on persuading the Liberals to use their Senate majority from the beginning of July to chop up the unions.

Clearly, in this situation, what is required is the broadest possible united front in the labour movement to defeat the Liberals. One inevitable part of that will be to exploit state’s rights sentiment in every Labor-controlled state and territory to use the state industrial systems to help defeat the Liberal attacks.

The unions in every state are already exploring that possibility, along with other possibilities for mobilisation in defence of union rights.

Nicholls is having none of that, however. He wants the Labor Party to go out of business forthwith. (“Put it out of its misery”, indeed.) This attitude is frighteningly reminiscent of the attitude of the German Communist Party in 1932: “After Hitler, our turn”.

There’s something inherently bizarre in an outfit like the DSP/Socialist Alliance, which got effectively no electoral vote in the federal elections, advocating the liquidation of the Labor Party, which got 47 per cent after preferences and has the allegiance of the vast majority of the left half of Australian society.

Aside from being ludicrous, this Third Period Stalinist madness deserves careful examination.

The facts are that despite all the verbal propaganda of the DSP/SA the relationship of forces between the DSP/SA and the Labor Party and the Greens among the masses is that the DSP/SA represents about 0.1 per cent of the population, if that. The Greens represent about 8 per cent, and the Labor Party represents about 38 per cent.

Is Nicholls so puffed up and deluded that he believes that if the Labor Party went out of business its 38 per cent would shift to the Greens, and perhaps partly to the Socialist Alliance?

That idea is inherently unlikely. If such a shift were possible, why didn’t the Labor and Green voters choose the Socialist Alliance in the last elections? They certainly had the opportunity in a lot of places.

The danger of abolishing Laborism in the absence of another mass political instrument for the working class is obvious: either a shift to the tories, or even more dangerously a shift in a fascist direction.

The DSP leadership doesn’t seem to care about such considerations. For them the only important thing is to smash Laborism.

The Third Period madness of Nicholls’ political proposals are complemented by the imperious, vindictive, unpleasant tone of the article, which is clearly directed at anyone who has anything to do with the Labor Party — in the final analysis at the whole of the Labor Party’s 47 per cent after-preferences voters.

One wonders who the article is directed at. It can hardly be directed at the voters who support Labor. They’re most likely to be antagonised. It may be directed at the 8 per cent or so who support the Greens, to warn them against Laborism — as if they needed any warning like that from the DSP.

At the end of the article there’s a pitch to the Greens, trying to accentuate sectarianism towards the Labor Party, when Nicholls projects his ideal model of a united front between the Socialist Alliance and the Greens, implicitly excluding Laborites. As if that’s likely to happen.

There’s another slightly eccentric dimension to all this. Nicholls, who spends a lot of time in Spain, says that the Social Democrats in Spain are better and more leftist than their counterparts in Australia. That’s special pleading, obviously, on behalf of Nicholls’ associates in the United Left in Spain, who quite correctly vote in the Cortes (the Spanish parliament) to keep the Socialist Party government in office and keep out the Spanish tories.

The United Left clearly has a united front strategy towards the Spanish Socialists.

The Danish Trotskyist parliamentarian who spoke at a meeting at the DSP centre in Sydney before Christmas, spelled out, without dissent from the DSP, a strategy of united front towards the Danish Socialists, and the centrists of the Socialist People’s Party.

He also underlined the fact that the socialist group that he represents in the Danish parliament regards the Danish Socialists as a bourgeois workers party, not an outright capitalist party.

At a more recent meeting at the DSP centre in Sydney, a representative of the formerly Stalinist German PDS (descended from the East German ruling party, the SED) emphasised the fact that the PDS is in coalition governments with the Social Democrats in the states of Berlin and Mecklenburg, again without dissent from the DSP.

Several Canadian allies of the DSP who have spoken at DSP and Resistance meetings have defended their strategy of working as socialists in the Canadian New Democratic Party (Canada’s labour party), again without dissent from the DSP.

All of these accommodations by the DSP leadership with more or less correct tactics of socialist organisations or individuals overseas are obviously dictated by the DSP’s quest for international allies, but in Australia the most byzantine DSP sectarianism prevails towards Labor and Laborites, as demonstrated by Nicholls’ article.

Timing is unkind to Nicholls and the DSP leadership in these matters. The same issue of Green Left Weekly has informative articles about the mobilisation in defence of Sudanese migrants and against a fascist group in Newcastle, and it clearly shows that the large physical presence of local Labor Party supporters, leaders and politicians was a major factor in the success of these mobilisations.

This is the Labor Party that Nicholls is demanding should go out of business forthwith. (“Put it out of its misery”), indeed.

Another piece of timing that’s very unfortunate for Nicholls is today’s assault by Gerard Henderson on the leadership and election campaign of the recently departed Labor parliamentary leader Mark Latham, particularly on the point of his dangerous opposition to the war in Iraq (according to Henderson and the Murdoch press).

From his point of view, Nicholls attacks Latham because his opposition to the war allegedly amounted to very little. Henderson and Nicholls can’t both be right.

In passing, it’s worth noting Nicholls’ parliamentary cretinism in relation to Labor and the Iraq war. There were two elements of Labor’s opposition to the Iraq war. One was the forthright opposition of the Labor leadership, the second was the massive participation across the country of tens of thousands of Labor Party members and supporters in the demonstrations against the war.

The endorsement of the demonstrations by the Labor leadership, and the participation in them of tens of thousands of Laborites, was a major factor in their mass character.

The Socialist Alliance parliamentary cretin, Nicholls, doesn’t notice any of that, particularly not the massive participation of Labor supporters in the antiwar demonstrations, but the reactionary bourgeois commentator Henderson certainly observes every bit of it, and that’s the basis for his unremitting hostility to Latham’s leadership of the Labor Party, which helped open the way to such a mass mobilisation.

On New Years Day I made a kind of new-year resolution not to waste too much time on arguing tactical matters with the DSP leadership that have been rehashed repeatedly, but the reactionary content and pretentious tone of Nicholls’ article leads me to revise this resolution a bit.

It seems to me that Nicholls’ article is mainly for internal consumption in the DSP/Socialist Alliance, which suggests to me that there may be some people in those organisations who are still open to reasoned argument on these vital tactical questions.

This is clearly a difficult and conservative period politically, for socialists. There is a general push by the ruling class to try to shift the whole of the political culture to the right and to weaken the institutions of the labour movement and the left, such as the trade unions, the Labor Party and the Greens.

Tiny groups of Marxists can have a useful influence if they approach this situation with realism, tactical flexibility and a relatively calm manner. On the hand, Third Period ultraleftism is very damaging indeed.

The Third Period ultraleftism of the DSP is unlikely to be a decisive factor in the broad labour movement because the influence of the DSP is very small. The real danger is to the members and supporters of the DSP/Socialist Alliance themselves, who in the medium term will become demoralised by the gap between their unrealistic perspectives and the real world of the labour movement in the rather difficult, defensive circumstances that all socialists face.


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