The DSP leadership’s Potemkin village

by

A letter to Andy Newman

Bob Gould

Green Left Weekly discussion list, March 15, 2005

Just recently you’ve put up on your website a bland interview with Dave Riley about the Australian Socialist Alliance. Within a few days of that, a rather sharp exchange between the ISO and the DSP about the alliance erupted into the public domain via exchanges in the alliance internal bulletin and an article in the Weekly Worker commenting on the conflict in the Socialist Alliance.

You sailed in from a considerable distance vehemently defending the DSP point of view on this exchange, using rather extravagant language attacking the author of the Weekly Worker article. In doing so, you loaded on to a real person an article written under a pseudonym, which is a pretty unfriendly act, to say the least.

You argue that the Weekly Worker article quoted a private letter, but that document was actually circulated at leadership level in the Socialist Alliance, and just about everyone on the Australian far left has seen it.

I’m fascinated that you seem so confident that the DSP is so correct on the questions in dispute on the Australian left.

I appreciate that as someone who has parted company with the British SWP relatively recently you may have a jaundiced view of the Australian ISO, which is linked to the SWP, but I would put to you that the general proposition, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, while sometimes useful tactically in the very short term, is generally a rather poor guide in serious discussions of major tactical and strategic questions in the labour movement.

You sail in with the fact that the Australian Labor Party and the Prices-Incomes Accord were models for the Blair project in Britain, but you completly ignore the important political difference that the Australian Labor Party as a whole opposed the recent Iraq invasion and voted against it in the Australian parliament.

More recently it opposed the commitment of more troops to Iraq. Surely there’s an important difference between a mass Labor Party that, despite its reformism and right-wing trajectory, opposed the Iraq adventure, and the Blair Labor government, which was a central initiator of the Iraq war.

I understand that you may not be clearly aware of this distinction if you’ve relied in the recent past on Green Left Weekly for information about Australian political developments. GLW played down the Labor opposition to the Iraq military commitment and even argued that it wasn’t really opposition. You’d be wise to use other sources as well as GLW for an overview of Australian politics.

I’d submit to you that the bland Riley-Boyle account of the DSP-Socialist Alliance is a classic Potemkin village operation. The DSP leadership gets very cranky when I argue the point with them about their chronic Third Period posture in relation to Labor, and recently Boyle and Ben Courtice have repeated the mantra about the considerable influence of the DSP on some left-wing union officials, despite the fact that “they’re still in the Labor Party”. Ben Courtice asserts that they privately say they have little commitment to the Labor Party, whatever he means by that.

There are several problems with this DSP organisational megalomania. Firstly, Australia is a federation of states, which are at considerable distance from each other and have independent political lives.

The Socialist Alliance is centred in the state of NSW in the city of Sydney, and about 25-30 of the 35-40 DSP full-timers, out of a membership of about 270, are located in Sydney, in the DSP headquarters in Chippendale.

In NSW and Sydney, despite its centre and those full-timers being there, the DSP has no influence in the labour movement, and is in a constant, almost self-chosen, antagonistic posture towards the whole left of the labour movement.

The situation is similar in the smaller states: Tasmania, South Australia, Queensland, the ACT and the Northern Territory. The small DSP-Socialist Alliance group is extremely antagonistic towards the left of the labour movement in those regions.

In Queensland there is one small exception: the secretary of the Transport Workers Union, a principled old former member of the Communist Party, who is now in the Labor Party, is quite courteous to the DSP and gives interviews occasionally to GLW.

In the smallish state of West Australia, which is almost a country in its own right — it costs more to fly from Sydney to Perth than it does to fly to Auckland, in New Zealand — the DSP has a friendly relationship with someone who organised a rank and file group in the Maritime Union and eventually won office at state level. The DSP is also in a rather opportunist political relationship with some Labor lefts in the Electrical Trades Union, who won office in a closely fought battle against another left-winger, and the DSP also has a kind of alliance with the officials of the building workers union, who run their own centre-right operation in the Labor Party.

Despite this, the results for the Socialist Alliance in the recent state elections — which resulted in a big swing to Labor, and the Greens holding their own — were so low as to be off the electoral radar.

In Victoria, the second largest Australian state, and the city of Melbourne, there is a recognisable left current in the trade union movement, which has the leadership — more or less — of the Victorian Trades Hall Council.

Most of the main personalities in this recognisably leftist trade union current are members of the Labor Party and play a substantial role in the affairs of the Labor left in Victoria. They go as delegates to Labor conferences, state and federal, and they play a considerable role in these events.

Some of them give interviews to GLW sometimes, and a couple of them put free bundles of GLW in their union office reception area. By and large, they are good people, certainly the best bunch in the trade union movement Australia-wide. Nevertheless they are mostly indigenous left Laborites of the better sort.

Boyle and Ben Courtice use self-serving rhetoric implying that these people might leave the Labor Party sometime soon, and the DSP leadership repeatedly says that these people say in private that Labor is no good, but anyone with any experience of the labour movement in any English-speaking country takes the DSP self-serving rhetoric on these questsions with the proverbial grain of salt.

In particular, the proposition that these militant trade union Laborites, who are a distinct and relatively healthy labour movement current, are about to merge with the DSP-Socialist Alliance anytime soon is pure moonshine.

Rather than deluding themselves with the kind of chronic bullshit that they go on with on these questions, the DSP leadership would be better served by asking themselves why these serious left-wing Labor trade unionists quietly ignore DSP calls to leave the “rotten second party of capitalism” and merrily continue in the normal activities in the Labor Party and trade unions.

The answer to that question is obvious: that from the point of view of serious trade unionists of the left, and of serious Marxists for that matter, work in the Labor Party and the trade unions is one of the daily necessities of the class struggle. Serious activists in the trade union movement are mostly unwilling to abandon it, despite constant entreaties from the DSP leadership, because it is from time to time useful in prosecuting the class struggle.

Some leftist officials of white collar unions are also activists in the Greens, which flows from the fact that the Greens are an important part of the stream of political life on the left-labour movement side of Australian politics.

No amount of DSP ultraleft rhetoric about Labor betrayals, and about likely future Green betrayals, has much effect on serious activists in the labour movement. The day to day activities of these labour movement activists are generally influenced by broader considerations than the self-interested organisational pretensions of small socialist groups.

Issues in dispute in the Socialist Alliance

A number of the issues in dispute in the Socialist Alliance flow directly from the above tactical problems. At the very start of the alliance the ISO and the other non-DSP affiliates agreed to the proposition of a limited electoral alliance.

Very quickly the DSP leadership pushed for what amounts to a regroupment — a new, homogeneous organisation — on DSP terms, which would have the alliance name but for practical purposes would be a kind of DSP mark II.

The immediate instrument for this push for the alliance as a rebadged DSP was the organisation of a group of ostensible independents in the alliance. From the beginning the dominant influence in this independent group were DSP “non-party Bolsheviks”, who essentially agreed with the political line of the DSP.

As other independents who didn’t agree on all questions with the DSP dropped out, this independent caucus has been reorganised several times.

The focus of the pressure from the DSP and its allied independent caucus has been for the alliance to adopt GLW, the rather well-produced DSP paper, as the paper of the alliance, and for all alliance members and supporters to sell it.

A certain amount of rhetoric is used about GLW being open to other points of view, but in practice the DSP leadership uses its mechanical majority to, in broad terms, confine GLW to the political line of the DSP. (Although in the face of the current crisis just this week GLW has published two sharply opposed articles on the crisis in the Socialist Alliance, which is a kind of first for what might have been institutionalised discussion in GLW if the DSP leadership had been serious about a multi-tendency paper. As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink).

It’s hard to see what mechanism the DSP leadership can find to persuade the ISO and other affiliates to sell a paper the broad political line of which they generally don’t agree with.
The cutting edge of this dispute between the DSP leadership and the ISO and many of the other affiliates is obviously the differences in strategy towards the Labor Party and the Greens.

In the short term, the point has been reached at which the Socialist Alliance resembles a badly dysfunctional marriage. It’s hard to tell whether there’ll be a short-term divorce or the DSP and, in particular the ISO, will stumble on for a bit longer in the way dysfunctional marriages stumble along “for the sake of the children”.

The half-smart rhetoric of Nick Fredman on the GLW discussion list attacking the ISO for holding back the Socialist Alliance process as the DSP sees it, is unlikely to solve any of these problems.

Despite the bland Boyle-Riley Potemkin village story, there’s a real crisis in the Socialist Alliance over these strategic questions and this crisis has led to the emergence of two caves in the DSP leadership which have been battling with each other for some months, but that’s another story.

Watch this space for future developments.

Discussion

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