Green Left Weekly discussion list, December 26, 2005
This is the third holiday season when rather harsh discussion has erupted on the Green Left discussion list between myself and Ed Lewis on the one hand and DSP leadership loyalists on the other. Possibly, the heat of these exchanges has a partly climatic aspect. We’re in the midst of the traditional Christmas heatwave, and so it has been for the past three years.
Of course, this year the tension is heightened by the countdown to the DSP conference, which will decide the future of the DSP as a formation, rather spectacularly.
On the Green Left discussion list, Kim Bullimore, Norm Dixon, and now John Tognolini, froth at the mouth about Ozleft being a gossip site and Dixon introduces the rather novel idea that Bob Gould is cyberstalking the DSP. Wow! Apparently it’s all right for the DSP leadership’s Boyle faction to put the verbal boot into everyone else in the workers’ movement in an unbridled way, but the relatively careful and cautious comment on the Ozleft site about developments in the DSP is somehow illegitimate.
Leading figures in the Boyle faction behave like kings of old. They have a clear concept of lese majeste: they can do or say anything, but comment by any other socialist on their schemes and activities is vile gossip.
Doug Jordan, for example, has the temerity to have Ozleft publish an opinion piece of his own on these matters, and he too gets the treatment. The fact that Doug spent 15 years or so of his life in the DSP counts for nothing with the Boyle bunch, nor is it considered important that Jordan and Gould clearly have some disagreements. Apparently anyone who says anything publicly that’s critical of the DSP is part of the universal anti-DSP conspiracy.
Dixon, Bullimore, Tognolini and Dave Riley would clearly prefer that there was no serious external discussion of the DSP’s crisis. Happily, they don’t have the power or the means to prevent such discussion, because what happens in the DSP is of considerable interest to a few hundred people on the far left in Australia, judging by the number of hits on Ozleft.
These interested people clearly include many current members and former members of the DSP, and the other groups and individual in, around, or recently departed from, the Socialist Alliance.
Why do the people in the Boyle faction think it’s either possible, or desirable, for an upheaval like the one going on in the DSP to take place without observation or input from the hundreds of other people on the left whose political lives are affected by developments in the DSP? They’re having themselves on.
On this point I strongly disagree with Doug Jordan, when he says the discussion in the DSP is of little intrinsic interest. Having studied the material in the internal debate carefully, I think this dispute is of considerable interest for the future of the far left and the socialist project in Australia.
Considered carefully, it is, or ought to be, the political property of the whole of the far left. The idea that schemes, perspectives and interventions can be decided internally, without the interest and input of other socialists affected by these decisions, went out with button-up shoes. The existence of the World Wide Web has effectively destroyed the possibility of totally internal discussion.
Gossip or information: the human race and the evolution of language
The December 24 Christmas double issue of The Economist magazine, published in London, contains a useful and informative article about human evolution. It is a round-up of developments in the field and it says: “… it is here that the question of language enters the equation. Truly Machiavellian language is impossible without it and despite claims for talking chimpanzees, parrots and dolphins – real language, the sort with with complex grammar and syntax – is unique to homo sapiens.
“Doctor Dunbar’s hypothesis is that language arose as a substitute for the physical grooming that other group-living primates use to maintain bonds of friendship. Conversation, or gossip, as he refers to it, certainly does seem to have the same bond-forming role as grooming. And, crucially for the theory, groups rather than just pairs, can ‘groom’ each other this way. Doctor Dunbar sees the 150-strong group size of homo sapiens as both a consequence and a cause of verbal grooming, with large groups stimulating the emergence of language, and language then permitting the emergence of larger groups still. Language, therefore, is a result of a process of positive feedback. Once established, it can be deployed for secondary purposes …”
The use of language, called gossip by Bullimore et al, is thus at the very centre of the development of humanity as a species. George Orwell caught some of the essence of this, inventing the notion of Newspeak, forced on the masses by the dictatorship in his novel, 1984.
In Stalin’s Russia, hundreds of thousands of people were imprisoned or killed for engaging in verbal “anti-Soviet agitation”, which was shorthand for saying anything critical of Stalin’s regime, or repeating jokes or rumours about the regime.
In sub-Leninist sects, which the DSP has to some extent become, and which the Communist Party certainly was in the period of High Stalinism between about 1930 and 1960, gossip (ie critical comments about the leadership or the political line) was treated as a political crime.
In the case of the CPA, once the floodgates were opened in the mid-1960s, the whole concept of it being lese majeste to attack the leadership fell apart as the discussion exploded. A similar process is happening right now in the DSP.
The explosion of internal discussion in the DSP follows a long period of artificially repressing discussion and keeping it internal, and even internal to the leadership, a view and a set of practices that drifted into sub-Leninist sects essentially from Stalinism.
Twenty-six internal bulletins have been produced in the DSP this year and there may be more to come. This is an unprecedented explosion of discussion in the history of the DSP. In these circumstances, it’s ridiculous and bizarre for Bullimore, Tognolini et al to have hysterics about “gossip” in the vituperative way they do.
Apparently, according to the DSP leadership and its more blinkered supporters, the rest of the far left, including former members of the DSP and members of the Socialist Alliance, are just there to be subject to the Machiavellian intrigues of the Boyle faction, and have no right to knowledge about how these intrigues are constructed.
The Green Left discussion site is presented as a great achievement, but in fact it’s more a rather selective media digest and a notice site for events and articles that the DSP Boyle faction thinks the rest of us should be interested in. If anyone outside the DSP tries to engage in discussion on the site, the Boyle faction’s abuse sausage machine grinds into action and sprays all over the transgressors.
Even the media digest aspect of the site is wildly distorted. A rather slanted Murdoch poll purporting to show that the NSW Government of Morris Iemma is in trouble is belted out on the list, but infinitely more important articles published in the same week, about the same Government’s High Court challenge to the Howard Government’s industrial relations law, are ignored because they don’t fit the Boyle faction’s fulminations about Laborism.
As a matter of fact, comment carried by Ozleft on the DSP crisis has been relatively restrained and careful. It is not sensationalised, it doesn’t contain lies, by and large it contains very few factual errors about the internal situation in the DSP, and we try to correct any factual errors that creep in.
Contrast the material on Ozleft with the coverage of the DSP developments on Sydney Indymedia, where trolls, some of them apparently DSP supporters, have used the names of other people to make false posts.
Peter Boyle’s curious Christmas comment on the Green Left list, in which he equates himself with Father Christmas – and not any Father Christmas, but one who has control of the universe — gives just a hint of what may happen if he grabs control of the DSP at the coming conference.
A number of things must be said very forcibly about this crisis in the DSP.
Firstly, quite a large number of old hands and former members of the DSP and its leadership have strongly made the point that major divisions in the DSP leadership in the past have never been resolved other than by the expulsion or driving out of the minority group.
Many of the same former members of the DSP and its leadership also point out that this dispute is highly unusual because the forces in the leadership have never previously been so evenly balanced. So, the DSP is entering uncharted territory.
For both sides in this dispute there’s clearly an enormous amount at stake, in some cases the results of whole lifetimes of political activity.
My latest information suggests that in the election for conference delegates, which these days takes place on the basis of one delegate for every four members (a few years ago it was one for three) the Percy-Lorimer forces won about 25 per cent of the delegates and the Boyle supporters won a majority, with a number of non-factional independents elected in the bigger branches.
There will be about 70 delegates in total. At DSP conferences the delegates are, by tradition and constitutional requirement, not mandated, so there is still room for movement on the floor of the conference, although at this stage it seems that the Boyle supporters have a majority. That is the basis of Boyle’s inane, triumphalist Father Christmas I-run-the-world type of comment on the Green Left list.
As I have said previously, my attitude in this dispute is partly motivated by the intelligent and realistic contributions of rank-and-file Percy-Lorimer supporters in the discussion. This is particularly striking in the face of the constant hysteria generated by Boyle himself and reflected by a number of his second-rank supporters, many of them people with little history in the workers’ movement, who seem to have come from nowhere much, and try to make up for that with unbridled ultraleft rhetoric and abuse. Quite a bit of this stuff gets aired from time to time on the GLW list.
In addition to this, Boyle has rallied into his camp the Dave Rileys and John Tognolinis of this world on the basis of his wild rhetoric. Tognolini even writes a small piece of personal abuse of Doug Jordan that starts off in the form of a kind of personal dossier, commencing with “Douglas Arthur James Jordan”, then degenerating into crude and unpleasant comments on Jordan’s alleged personality. Tognolini makes the ridiculous claim that Jordan has written his observations on the DSP crisis to justify joining the Greens, when in fact he joined the Greens several years ago.
All of these developments have sad resemblances to the Stalinisation of the Communist Party of Australia during the Third Period.
The old CPA leadership of Kavanagh and Ryan was replaced (under direct pressure from Stalin’s Comintern) by people with little history in the movement, who used unbridled ultraleft rhetoric, and engaged in ultraleft physical activities. This Stalinisation of the CPA had disastrous results for a long historical period.
A number of former DSP members and people in the Socialist Alliance who’ve been savaged by the DSP leadership in recent times seem a little puzzled by my arguing for the defeat of the Boyle forces. There’s a certain sentiment that all factions of the DSP leadership are as bad as each other and that Percy, Lorimer and others have had it coming to them for a long time.
A number of old hands around and in the DSP who remember the ruthless and summary purging of the Nita faction and the series of purges over the years, up to the expulsion of LF last year, tend to favour a plague-on-both-houses approach to the dispute. Indeed, it is possible that the dispute may end in the mutual ruin of the contending forces, as the saying goes.
It’s also quite clear that a number of old hands in the DSP who are rather uneasily on the Boyle side at the moment have old scores to settle with Percy and Lorimer, and even retrospectively with the late Jim Percy. A number of these old hands still in the leadership of DSP dabbled with various past oppositions and then drew back at the last minute, and who knows what powerful personal antagonisms have built up over the years in the DSP pressure cooker in Chippendale?
One of the old figures, DH, who is uneasily in a bloc with Boyle, ascribes the current break-up in the leadership to tensions in the Sydney branch and national office. It’s easy to imagine the tensions that have built up in, for instance, weekly editorial board and political committee meetings, and I’ve heard accounts of one woman, who is part of the Percy faction, repeatedly laying down the law to journalists on the newspaper in editorial committee meetings, giving rise to considerable tensions.
I’m familiar with the intense hostilities that can build up in the leadership of small Marxist groups. I know that kind of territory moderately well.
Despite all these historic tensions and grievances it’s important to put them aside sometimes and look at the overall political consequences of courses of action taken or advocated. As I have said previously, I have no personal reason to do any favours for Percy, Lorimer, etc. I’ve done a reasonable job so far of demolishing Percy’s inaccurate and biased history of the Australian revolutionary socialist movement. I’m only a third of my way through my critique of Percy’s book and I’ll return to that task in due course.
Nevertheless, personal grievances and disputes are only one part of political life, and they should especially be only one part of it in Marxist groups. In its major aspect, Marxism is the science of perspective.
My major initial political reason for strenuously opposing the Boyle faction’s bid to take over the DSP is its hyped-up, unrealistic, inaccurate, unsound and incorrect projection of likely developments in the labour movement. The Boyle group, in a totally idealist way, presents a possibility of building a mass alternative force in opposition to both Labor and the Greens as a likely development in the short or medium term, with the only missing element being subjective commitment by socialists to engaging in such a project.
Viewing the history of the labour movement, internationally and in Australia, and looking carefully at the real short-term possibilities in the labour movement, the Boyle perspective is fantastic, dangerous nonsense.
Its eccentric perspective leads the Boyle group to concentrate its main fire on sterile exposure of Labor, the trade union leadership, and by clear implication, the Greens as well.
This Boyle faction posture propels the DSP into constant efforts at verbal exposure of all the existing institutions of the labour movement, with the obvious result of isolating the DSP from the real movement of the working class, which is proceeding at the moment through some popular rebellions, and mainly through the existing institutions of the labour movement: the trade unions, the Labor Party and the Greens.
Rather than the necessary united front tactic, the Boyle perspective pushes the DSP towards constant confrontation with the rest of the labour movement. The result of this is to obscure possible points of intervention by Marxists to push the movement along against the wishes of the existing bureaucratic misleadership in the labour movement, who tend to vacillate all over the place.
Belatedly, but nevertheless quite firmly, the Percy faction seems to be moving away from this eccentric perspective. This move away from the Boyle perspective is clear in the discussion contributions of rank and file members on the Percy side in the dispute.
Along with the question of perspective, the question that arises in many minds is the likely regime in a DSP under the undisputed control of the Boyle faction. My informants in the DSP tell me that there are clearly perceptible differences in the Boyle current.
Boyle bases himself on, moulds, develops and encourages, second-rank activists with very little history and almost no political education, who mouth the noisiest and most ultraleft slogans. There are a number of significant individuals in this category, and everyone in the DSP has seen them at work. They are the hard core of Boyle’s faction.
Boyle constantly gives the cue to this layer with his extravagant rhetoric on the GLW list, and to some extent internally in the DSP.
Boyle has also rallied to his side a number of noisy individuals of uneven political activity who have repeatedly been in and out of the DSP, the most extreme examples of whom are Dave Riley and John Tognolini, and the until recently ostensible Socialist Alliance independent well known for his rhetoric about the Glasgow kiss.
The net effect of Boyle and his narrower faction is to create a rather intimidating mood of mild hysteria in the DSP.
The other element in the Boyle coalition consists of some union activists in Victoria, who are a good deal saner than Boyle. One of them, an activist in the CFMEU, has presented his own model for independent socialist activity that is quite realistic.
Another element is some old hands in the DSP, such as JM and CW in Brisbane and DH in Melbourne. They may have some old grievances with Percy and Lorimer, but may prove to be unreliable allies for Boyle, as they were for the Nita faction in the mid-1980s.
Addressing first the old hands with grievances, I’d put to them very seriously that while the idea of a kind of vengeance day in the DSP may be appealing at a human level, it’s a very bad guide to Marxist politics.
I’d ask the trade unionists, mainly in Victoria: do they really believe that the Boyle perspective is in any way realisable in the short or medium term in the labour movement? Is it of any use in their day-to-day trade union activity? Surely the rational and realistic answer must be no.
In addition to this, I’d put to the saner people of both varieties currently in the Boyle camp: do they really want to put this bloke, with his second-rank ultraleft supporters, to whom he constantly gives the cue with his rhetoric, and for whom he writes the song sheet, do they really want to give him the major power in the DSP, with all its traditional authoritarian practices and super-centralisation intact?
There’s a certain inexorable logic in this kind of development in small Marxist groups. Give a person like Boyle, with his extravagant, unscientific, ultraleft rhetoric and his claque of noisy, hand-raising supporters, supreme power, and you are likely to precipitate a split in the very short term, with the driving out of the Percy-Lorimer opposition.
Do the old-time DSP leaders who are currently in a bloc with Boyle really want that kind of development, a Boyle leadership of the DSP, just to settle accounts with John Percy, Doug Lorimer and Jim Percy’s ghost?
Natalia Sedova once quoted Lenin as saying about Stalin: “This cook only prepares peppery dishes.” It’s my belief that, on the basis of his constant verbal abuse and pandering to ultraleftism, that would also be a reasonable thing to say about Boyle.
Another analogy springs to mind from the history of the Russian Revolution. Zinoviev wasn’t a particularly attractive figure, and Stalin moved against Zinoviev and Kamenev, with the support of the “committeemen”, fairly brutally and effectively. At that point he had the support of the right opposition of Bukharin and Rykov. Stalin dealt with them later, as we all know.
It seems to me pretty likely that if Boyle grabs control of the DSP and its significant material assets, he will push aside his saner and more moderate allies relatively easily, using the claque of handraisers that he has gathered on the basis of his noisy ultraleftism.
Past mistakes committed by Lorimer and Percy are real, but they pale into insignificance beside the grim prospect of the Boyle hard core taking over the DSP.
The history of the workers’ movement in many countries, particularly the USA and Britain, has examples of small Marxist sects built on thoroughly authoritarian organisational principles being transformed into formations quite different from the way they started out. Some of them have become thoroughly right wing.
The real impetus driving the hard core of the Boyle faction can hardly be the political perspective outlined by Boyle and his supporters, because as Percy and his supporters have systematically demonstrated in their contributions to the internal discussion, that perspective is politically nonsensical.
Strip away the nonsensical perspective of the Boyle group and what you have is a naked bid for power in a small, traditionally authoritarian Marxist sect.
If the Boyle group wins its bid for power, no one can predict what the outcome may be.
December 29, 2005
I’d like to commend John Tognolini for the (for him) relatively calm nature of his post on the Green Left list at about 8.45pm on Tuesday. While we’re at it, I strongly object to his inaccurate assertion in an earlier post that I called him a scab sometime in the 1980s for advocating that unions disaffiliate from the Labor Party.
As most people, even my opponents, are aware, I’m always reasonably careful in my language, even in the full flow of verbal debate.
I’ve never called a fellow socialist a scab, firstly because it’s unsound to confuse discussion with pejorative language and secondly because lightly calling people scabs usually ends up rebounding on the people who do it. Tognolini probably mis-remembers some heated verbal exchange, but I am certain that I have never called him a scab.
To jog my memory, does Tognolini remember whether or not, in his highly coloured recollection, this exchange took place before or after the DSP leadership changed its mind about the character of the Labor Party. Enough of that.
Tognolini says that earlier this year the Teachers Federation leadership estimated that a legal challenge to the transfer of industrial powers from the states to the federal government would fail. He relies on that. As everyone in the labour movement knows, the Teachers Federation leadership is very close to the ACTU leadership, and to a very large extent takes its cue from the ACTU leadership.
That certainly was the view of the ACTU leadership early this year. As recorded in Green Left Weekly in an interview with Tim Gooden and others, the DSP was also clearly relying on that ACTU leadership view when it declared that a High Court legal challenge would probably fail.
In some things the ACTU leadership is an unreliable ally. Under pressure from the unions and the Labor state governments in five of the six where state industrial systems still exist, Greg Combet and the ACTU leaders have changed their view on this matter and are now supporting the High Court challenge.
There are conflicting legal opinions as to whether the challenge will succeed, but if it does succeed it will be a major obstacle to Howard’s plans and will pretty well derail them.
I’m not a lawyer, and neither are Tognolini or Gooden, so I tend to rely on the advice of a variety of expert lawyers, in this case obviously, constitutional lawyers.
Being an optimist, I hope the challenge does succeed and it seems to me that the balance of constitutional legal opinion is shifting in the direction that the challenge may well succeed and that the case may hinge on what were the intentions of the drafters of the Australian constitution, and to some extent on the fact that in similar conflicts, transfers of power from the states to the Commonwealth have been defeated in a number of referenda.
Nevertheless, the question of whether socialists should support a challenge to the transfer of powers from the states isn’t totally simple or obvious. I’d recommend three articles: Stanley Bruce’s great industrial relations blunder (an extract from Jack Lang’s book The Great Bust), Fighting Howard’s attacks and Stanley Bruce and John Howard compared.