Tactics in the labour movement

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A response to John Tognolini

Green Left Weekly discussion list, December 28, 2005

I’d like to commend John Tognolini for the (for him) relatively calm nature of his post on the Green Left list 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’ve written a bit about this in three articles: Stanley Bruce’s great industrial relations disaster (with an extract from the memoir of former NSW Labor premier Jack Lang), Fighting Howard’s attacks and History repeats itself: John Howard and Stanley Bruce compared.

The striking thing about the DSP leadership’s approach to these matters is its mindlessness. If Labor state governments, or Unions NSW, are doing something, the DSP leadership’s automatic reflex is to oppose it or say it’s of no importance.

A strenuous prosecution of the case against the transfer of powers in the High Court, whether it is won or lost, is yet another opportunity to make effective propaganda about the anti-working-class motives driving the Howard Government. In fact, anyone who saw John Delabosca, the NSW industrial relations minister, on television explaining the reasons for the challenge would find it hard to fault his energetic and intelligent explanation as to why the Liberals were trying to transfer the powers, and the dangers that represented to the interests of the working class.

In a sense, the dimensions of the struggle are even more important than the legal case itself, because the legal case opens up one more field of struggle on the question of the industrial relations legislation.

Nowhere has the DSP had any public discussion of the short-term strategic questions involved in the legal case or of the broader issues facing socialists that I canvassed very early on in my articles. Those questions don’t interest the DSP leadership because because they don’t fit in with the DSP’s ritual denunciations of Laborism.

Tognolini is only concerned to mouth a routine attack on the misdeeds of the Labor Party, and some ritual verbal abuse of me for failing to make verbal denunciation of the NSW Labor Government the centre of my political activity.

Concerning the Labor Party, Tognolini is engaged in what Lenin frequently called scolding scoundrels. You know, quite well, that I oppose the actions of Labor governments that you refer to, and in fact from to time I express sharp opposition at Labor Party and other meetings.

A revealing aspect of Tognolini’s previous post flows from his verbal assault on Doug Jordan for joining the Greens. Tognolini clearly shares the idealist perspective of one group in the DSP leadership that the main requirement for socialists is to unfold the electoral banner, nail up the shingle, and this will enable you to build a mass alternative to Labor, the Liberals and by clear implication, the Greens as well.

This is metaphysics. Tognolini should have a good look at the tactics advocated by Lenin and Trotsky at the third and fourth congresses of the Comintern. For them, politics wasn’t simply a matter of running up the flag and the masses flocking to it, which is clearly implied in his post.

As a matter of rather brutal fact, the DSP leadership has been running up the banner and inviting the masses to join throughout the four-year experience of the Socialist Alliance. They’ve also been engaged in the small change of rather Machiavellian intrigues against the other organizations in the Alliance, and against the two successive groups of organised independents, both of which eventually came into conflict with the DSP leadership.

The balance sheet of the Socialist Alliance experience is strikingly clear, and has emerged for all to see in the debate leading up to the coming DSP conference. The Alliance has steadily got smaller, its electoral vote has fallen, even from a rather low starting point, and the membership of both the DSP and Resistance has fallen, that of Resistance dramatically so.

The objective possibility of the Socialist Alliance developing into a mass electoral force and a mass alternative to Labor and the Greens as organisations is about zero. The prospect of the Alliance developing into such a mass alternative is even less after four years experience of the Alliance than it was before.

Among the very few successes that the proponents of the Socialist Alliance strategy can point to in recent months is the recruitment of a handful of individuals, Tognolini, Riley and Miller, the bloke of metaphorical “Glasgow kiss” fame, to the DSP. Whether this is a benefit to the DSP entirely depends on your point of view in these matters.

The idea that voluntaristic enthusiasm can overcome the problems that socialists face in trying to win mass influence is obviously fantasy. The working class, migrant communities, the radical wing of the middle class, and organised trade unionists, taken as a whole the left side of society, are pretty clear about the material reality of the hegemony of Laborism and the Greens over the left half of society. In the current defensive situation resulting from the violent attacks of the Howard Government on the interests of the working class, and the left side of society, there’s a strong tendency to close ranks around the trade unions, Labor and the Greens, and that leaves little scope for socialist groups that delude themselves about being a serious organisational alternative.

Tactics adopted by Marxist groups should flow from a realistic appraisal of the circumstances confronting the working class and Marxists. To replace concrete analysis with voluntarist fantasies is of no use at all, and the belated recognition of this reality by a part of the DSP leadership and membership is a product of a recognition of the bankruptcy of this voluntarist kind of approach.

Marxist groups should maintain their own independent organisation, but a united front strategy towards the existing organisations of the working class — the trade unions, the Labor Party and the Greens — is an imperative that flows out of the real situation that is clearly present in the material world of the working class and the left side of Australian society.

Further, persisting in an open party tactic involving belligerent propaganda that the DSP-Socialist Alliance is the only alternative, or will become the mass leftist party in the reasonably short term, presents great dangers to the political and mental health of people who persist in isolating themselves in organisations of this mindset. They can, and often do, end up becoming kind of political Jehovah’s Witnesses, denouncing everyone else in the labour movement for failing to see the light as they do.

That is the path by which initially rational socialist political groups are transformed into messianic sects. The problem is that the constant battering of the heads of the socialists who adopt this strategy up against the hard wall of reality ends up producing a political mindset in which they can’t comprehend life outside the sect. The wastage is usually pretty high.

After persisting in this kind of political make-work for a while, activists often give politics away entirely, or if they remain in the labour movement, they sometimes shift over dramatically to the right because the gap between the sort of theory internal to the sect and any sensible practice in the broader labour movement is so immense.

Discussion


John Tognolini’s slander is not credible

December 29, 2005

John Tognolini only takes up in a very summary way the strategic and tactical questions that I raised about the workers’ movement. He does say that even if the Liberal government loses the High Court case it’s of little importance.

That shows he, and the Boyle faction DSP leadership, who he echos in this, can’t see the wood for the trees on strategic questions.

The main thrust of his post, however, is to reiterate his slander that I called him a scab in some argument about 20 years ago, and he uses a very big font to make his point.

He makes the time more specific, that it was after the DSP had changed its line on the Labor Party, which puts it somewhere around 1985-87. To gild the lily even more he has me frothing at the mouth and disrupting DSP forums and he claims I do much the same thing now on the Green Left list.

His accusation lacks all credibility. The fact is, at the time he is talking about my relations with the DSP and its leadership were fairly good, despite differences we had about the Labor Party.

An example of this is that Jim Percy sought my participation, along with a lot of others on the independent left, in meetings held at Phil Lee’s house in Annandale, to create a diverse left pole of attraction at the CPA-organised Broad Left conference in 1986.

At the end of that conference, which involved a stormy argument between the whole of the far left, including the then SPA, the DSP, a number of left Labor Party people, some Maoists and Frank Hardy, there was a meeting at Glebe Town Hall attended by about 300 people.

The speakers at that meeting were Jim Percy, Harry Black of the SPA, myself and Frank Hardy. A totally comradely atmosphere prevailed at the meeting.

A few years later, when Jim Percy died, John Percy asked me to speak at the memorial meeting, also at Glebe Town Hall. A couple of years later, when Ernest Mandel died, John Percy asked me to speak at the memorial meeting for Mandel, which I did.

Tognolini’s picture of rather crazed Bob Gould frothing at the mouth, disrupting DSP forums, is a figment of his own fevered imagination, which is put to the service of slandering me basically because of current disagreements about strategy.

Doug Jordan has thrown into the pot something previously unknown to me, that at some point the DSP withdrew and pulped an issue of Direct Action because it contained something that slandered me (if any old hand remembers that event, or even perchance has kept a copy of the slanderous bit of Direct Action, I’d love to see it, just to know what it was about).

Accusing someone of being a scab is about the worst thing you can say about anyone in the labour movement. If Tognolini says I called him a scab, were there witnesses? Did he take it up with anyone to get me to withdraw or apologise? Did he publish some protest to me to get me to with draw it, or anything like that?

In addition, Tognolini is well known for a rather vociferous temperament. What did he do at the time? Did he sit calmly, while as he alleges, I called him a scab?

In my sporadic experience of Tognolini over the years he’s a rather volcanic individual, and he’s about the last person I would call a scab unless I had become unhinged.

I repeat my assertion. I have never called Tognolini a scab, and in the absence of him providing some more concrete evidence of his allegation, he the one engaged in gratuitous personal slander for current political purposes, probably egged on by others.

I resent this slander intensely, although there’s not a great deal I can do about it, or intend to do about it. This unpleasant slander of me simply underlines the political method of Tognolini, and possibly some of his associates.

Discussion

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