Implacable hostility to the united front


Bob Gould

Norm Dixon is becoming an extreme example of the DSP leadership’s royal delusions of grandeur. He insists that everybody, in the world maybe, but at least everyone in the Greens, should adopt the DSP leadership’s opposition to any united front with Laborites.
Once again, Norm, sit down for a minute and read Ian Rintoul’s press release. Rintoul deserves to be listened to, and his strategic approach in the refugee movement is worthy of study, much more than anything the DSP leadership is saying or doing.

His press release, rather than trying to score points off Labor in general, appeals to the ranks, and indeed to Labor Party politicians and the Labor caucus, to dump Ferguson’s reactionary stance on refugees.

It doesn’t go on with the clownishness of the DSP leadership on these matters, throwing abuse at every Laborite who shows their head above the parapet, so to speak, and it doesn’t treat with contempt the activities of the thousands of Labor people all over Australia who’ve campaigned againgst Ferguson’s reactionary stance on refugees.

It is true that the general campaign of the refugee movement has been a major factor in the short-term defeat of Ferguson’s stance, but the political reality is that Ferguson’s defeat is also a product of internal agitation in the ALP against his political position. The result is due to a combination of both factors.

Norm is so blind to the real political process and so fixated on his animosity to Labor in general that he ascribes it all to the refugee movement and ridicules the agitation of thousands of Labor Party members in the ALP and the trade unions. What shameless Third Period sectarians Norm Dixon and the DSP leadership are on these questions. They can’t see the wood for the trees, even when the trees rise up and bite them on the bum.

In addition to this, their shameless sectarian posture precludes the possibility of them helping in the ongoing struggle that must proceed around refugees in the labour movement, the ALP and the community at large.

I happen to know Tony Burke, the member of the NSW right who replaces Ferguson. One of the idiosyncracies of political life in Sydney is that Burke, Ferguson and I all went to the same Catholic school in the western suburbs, St Patricks College at Strathfield.

Burke is a nice bloke and before he got into parliament he was a very serious trade unionist of the NSW right. However, the secretary of his old union, the SDA, Donnelly, was the person on the foreign affairs committee of the ALP who initiated the move to drop the more progressive NSW policy on refugees in favour of the federal policy, a move that was blocked when John Robertson of Unions NSW served notice that he would move an amendment reasserting the NSW policy, causing Ferguson and Donnelly to back off.

In responding to emails, with which he was being deluged, Ferguson first denied that the NSW conference setback had happened, and later changed tack and rhetorically asked some emailers which policy he should follow: federal or state.
Tony Burke left the SDA a year or two ago, when he was elected to parliament. Donnelly, who is an intelligent trade unionist, may well have learned something about immigration questions from the education that both he and Ferguson have had over the past couple of months about the deep groundswell of pro-refugee sentiment in Labor and the trade unions.

New brooms are supposed to sweep clean, and the refugee movement and Labor for Refugees should open an energetic dialogue with Tony Burke to encourage him to take a pro-refugee stance, if he doesn’t already have such a view.

In my view, that’s the way to proceed: substantial agitation in the community in support of refugees, combined with agitation in the trade unions and the ALP.
The last few weeks have demonstrated that we’ve come a considerable distance in the labour movement on these matters, despite the myopic sectarianism of Norm Dixon and the DSP leadership.

There’s education and education, as Farrell Dobbs wrote about the strikes of the 1930s in Minneapolis. Laurie Ferguson has learnt that if you take a reactionary stance you sometimes get defeated and shunted sideways. He wasn’t wise enough to change his position and adapt to a new mood in the labour movement.

The new bloke, Tony Burke, can conceivably be educated the other way. He may, if he hasn’t already, come around to a more humane position on refugees. I’m not naive in these matters, and the struggle proceeds.

A minor aspect of Norm’s last email, but a very nasty aspect, is his redbaiting of my friend Ed Lewis. Ed Lewis doesn’t snap to attention when told to do so by the royalty of the DSP leadership, and reject a united front with Labor, so he automatically becomes a Laborite “masquerading as a Green”. What self-important clowns the DSP leadership are in these matters.

Ed Lewis has been active, on and off, in the Greens since about 1993. Many Greens, while sharply opposed to the Laborites, also (sometimes through gritted teeth) practise a united front strategy towards Labor Party members.

As luck would have it, last night I attended a meeting in Parliament House chaired by Sylvia Hale and organised by the Greens, about the struggle against public-private partnerships and the privatisation of services, mainly in the NSW health system.

The speakers included Bruce Cornwell, a branch secretary of the health services union, David Henry of Newcastle University and Jenny Haines, longtime nurses’ association activist and delegate, and coincidentally a central figure in the agitation in the ALP against Laurie Ferguson’s reactionary stance on refugees.

On the face of it, the Greens don’t share the DSP leadership’s tendency to treat all Labor Party members as an undifferentiated reactionary mass.

It’s worth noting that when your dopey sectarian schema falls apart on you, as it has in the past few days, you try to divert attention from that by redbaiting personal abuse directed at the messenger, in this case Ed Lewis.

You also do this by excessive personal abuse of assorted Laborites, including, in this particular context, even Laurie Ferguson. In my view, it’s better to conduct agitation against the reactionary views of someone like Ferguson without too much abusive left talk against him personally.

In labour movement politics it’s my experience that you often get a better result by sticking to the basic political questions and leaving aside the personal abuse.

The DSP leadership and the “united front from below”

June 25, 2005

Norm Dixon claims I’m slandering the DSP leadership by accusing it of being opposed to any united front of a serious sort with Laborites or trade unionists who are part of the ALP-trade union continuum (as I choose to describe it, I think realistically).

For about 15 years now, in Green Left Weekly and more recently on this website, pretty well everything published by DSP supporters about Labor or Laborites is designed to cast them in a derogatory light.

Peter Boyle through much of last year threw dozens of references to “conga lines of suckholes” at Mark Latham. As Latham collided with the ruling class on broad policy matters, such as withdrawing Australian troops from Iraq, the DSP propaganda was all about how Latham couldn’t be genuine because of Laborism.

The ruling class certainly thought he was genuine and constantly attacked him for the troop withdrawal policy. And so it goes, repetitively and implacably, year after year, from the DSP leadership.

When challenged about this myopic approach, Dixon just denies it’s happening, saying the DSP has a united front policy because Labor Party members can always speak on DSP programs if they accept the maximum program of the DSP on this or that question. Big deal.

Dixon and the DSP leadership systematically refuse to accept the evidence of what they see and hear: that there’s still a broadly leftist current in Labor and the trade unions.

The most recent evidence of this is the agitation against Ferguson’s reactionary stance on refugees. Another piece of evidence is the broad opposition through the whole labour movement to Howard’s anti-union push.

The DSP leadership searches endlessly for evidence of any weakness or inadequacy in ALP or trade union circles, and when they find what they think may be such a weakness they assault it with all barrells blazing, rather than trying in a reasoned and careful way to persuade the people they disagree with to adopt a more militant policy.

In fact, the DSP looks for what divisions and splits they can encourage, rather than stressing the broadest possible mobilisation.

In the 1930s, when the Stalinists were carrying out their Third Period attack on Labor, they did pretty much what the DSP does now. They attacked Social Democracy in the most unbridled way, when the real need was a united mobilisation of Communists and Social Democrats against fascism, and then insisted that they were not involved in splitting activity, but they were in fact carrying out a united front of a special type: “the united front from below”.

This amounted to the proposition that any Social Democratic workers who broke away from their rotten leaderships could be accommodated on Communist platforms. The position of Norm Dixon and the DSP leadership is a classic restatement of the old Stalinist so-called united front from below.

Along with conducting a little class on Ian Rintoul’s excellent press release in the DSP headquarters, maybe the DSP fulltimers could have a little class on Trotsky’s writings on the Third Period, in which he polemicised in an absolutely devastating way against the united front from below rhetoric of the Stalinists. If the DSP no longer has Trotsky’s writings on Germany, I still have a few of the Penguin edition in my shop, which I sell for the modest price of $15.

The Stalinist obscenity of the united front from below, so-called, was really a series of ultimatums to the Social Democratic workers that they had to give away their political allegiance. It wasn’t really a united front tactic at all, as Trotsky pointed out.

The Stalinist so-called united front from below, along with the betrayals of the Social Democrats, were the material factors that contributed to the victory of fascism in Germany under Hitler.

Study Trotsky on the “united front from below”, Norm, before you repeat the Stalinist rhetoric of that period.

The DSP leadership’s repetition here and now of that major political disaster, regardless of what rhetoric Dixon or the DSP leadership use, is not going to draw workers or the progressive section of the middle class away from Labor, and it’s highly unlikely to draw the roughly 8-11 per cent, largely of the progressive middle class who support the Greens, away from that party.

There’s not the slightest evidence that rhetoric and propaganda will shift large numbers of people from their long-term political allegiance.

The experience of the past two or three years shows a fairly settled political landscape in Australia for the immediate future. Labor has 30-40 per cent of the voting population, the Greens 8-11 per cent and the Socialist Alliance is nowhere, in mass political terms.

There may be shifts either way between Labor and the Greens, but in the final analysis, despite the necessary conflict between them over policy, they usually exchange preferences against the common enemy, the Tories.

Dixon lectures Ed Lewis, who he claims is my sidekick (Norm can’t conceive of a political relationship where there are differences of orientation that don’t become dominant or prevent collaboration), that his main activity should be giving lectures to Laborites he encounters about why they should ditch Labor and join the Greens. That’s particularly revealing.

Dixon counterposes that to Ed’s conception, which Ed explained, that in the common agitation, for instance against a freeway, his approach was to draw local Labor Party members into the agitation, and perhaps by experience they might come around to the view that the Greens are better.

Dixon and the DSP leadership have a completely idealist conception of how politics proceed at the mass level. When it suits them (and it doesn’t always suit them) they pluck some issue out of the sky and say it’s a point of principle and that you have to join the Socialist Alliance because of this point of principle.

In reality, this is a bizarre view of why and how people change their political allegiances. Individual propaganda, while important for winning cadres, is rarely responsible for shifting large numbers of people from one allegiance to another.

In particular, the idea that significant forces in the orbit of either Labor or the Greens will be recruited to the Socialist Alliance by individual propaganda of this sort is a total fantasy.
Stalinist-style “united fronts from below”, concentrating entirely on the exposure of rival organisations, are often disruptive, and they rarely work.

If you take the example of the current crisis over industrial relations the aim, for any serious socialist, must be the defeat of the Howard Government’s push.

The labour movement is starting from behind in this because of past betrayals. Nevertheless, it’s inconceivable that Howard will be defeated by anything other than a united mobilisation that includes the whole of the labour movement, the whole of the ALP and the unions, the Greens and broader social forces.

The DSP leadership’s constant and relentless exposure strategy is completely counterproductive in the current conditions.

To summarise: Norm Dixon spelled out a conception of the united front that is exactly the same as the old Stalinist “united front from below” of the Third Period in the 1930s.

That political position was demolished by Trotsky in the early 1930s. In addition to being wrong in principle, it has no hope of winning over significant forces from either Labor or the Greens to socialism. It’s a metaphysical conception that presumes people at the mass level can be won over to socialism primarily by propaganda.

At this point, I’d like to challenge the DSP leadership to a debate on these questions in any forum they choose. I would prefer a forum in which an attempt was made to get militants of all the far left organisations, and Labor and Green leftists, together in some framework to engage in a serious discussion of these questions.


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