Not to praise, not to blame, but to understand


A balance sheet of the upheaval in the DSP so far

Bob Gould

The DSP conference has now been over for a couple of weeks and the two factions in the DSP have obviously been making their arrangements for the future in the steamy heat of a Sydney January.

The new national secretary, Peter Boyle, has belatedly released a poorly drafted letter to the national executive of the Socialist Alliance, in which he says he’s the national secretary, John Percy is the national president and Sue Bolton is the assistant national secretary. More news of the conference is promised in the first issue of Green Left Weekly for the year, on January 25, three weeks after the event ended.

My understanding is that the conference was extremely heated and intense. It was a small event with a relatively high delegate ratio, and the DSP departed from its usual pattern of having a residential conference for its new year gathering, instead hiring a high school in inner-city Sydney. Observer numbers were down and the usual educational and public sessions of the annual gathering, which are usual even at decision-making conferences, apparently were absent.

The relationship of forces was comfortably on the side of the majority. Minority platforms were counterposed to all the reports, and I’m told on good authority that the voting was uniform through with the majority having 44 delegate votes and 29 consultative votes, while the minority had 16 delegate votes and 11 consultative votes.

Most of the significant minority leaders were kept on the national committee, although in one instance of petty vengefulness a very longstanding member of the organisation, going back about 35 years, who is a member at large living overseas, was bumped from the national committee to the national committee candidate list.

The most striking feature of the political battle inside the DSP was the unprecedented size of the written debate, with 26 bulletins and hundreds of contributions. The debate ranged over the whole history of the organisation. Having studied most of the bulletins it seems to me that the minority more or less won the argument, although it decisively lost the vote.

It’s quite clear that Boyle, who is rather primitive in political argument, is a redoubtable student of assembling a majority by appealing to past grievances among old hands, some of which are entirely valid, and encouraging reckless and idealist left talk about the future prospects of the Socialist Alliance among the inexperienced.

I don’t wish to equate Boyle directly with J.V. Stalin, but he has one quality rather strikingly in common with Stalin: that others in the DSP whose political level is a good deal higher than Boyle’s have underestimated his considerable capabilities as a factional infighter in a small organisation.

The ugly rhetoric used by Boyle publicly on the Green Left Weekly discussion list over the past couple of years was obviously directed towards DSP members to help him construct a majority on the basis of a certain backwardness and a lot of ultraleftism.

One remembers from the history of the bureaucratisation of the Bolshevik Party after Lenin’s death, the way Trotsky, who was in every way politically superior to Stalin, mistakenly regarded him as a grey nonentity and a mere technician, until it was too late and Stalin had grabbed power in both the party and the Soviet state.

I don’t want to take this analogy with Trotsky and Stalin too far. John Percy is no Trotsky, and I don’t wish to equate Boyle with Stalin, other than concerning the technical aspect of the upheaval in the DSP. Happily, Boyle has managed to seize power in a small political sect, not a large state, so anyway the political consequences of his victory are unlikely to be as catastrophic as were those of Stalin.

Happily, the Boyle palace revolution has so far not led to a split. The far left needs further splits like a hole in the head in current political circumstances.

Immediately after the conference, the Percy-Lorimer minority declared that they would not dissolve their faction and took the name, Leninist Faction. They justified that on the grounds on that the majority are a Social Democratic deviation, which from where I sit seems a rather strange characterisation.

This declaration of an ongoing faction in the DSP is rather un-Cannonist, or if you prefer an analogy from Catholic religious dogma, uncanonical, and it’s unprecedented in the DSP. Both factions of the DSP consider themselves Leninists in the tradition of James P. Cannon, of the US SWP, and Cannon’s writings polemicise at length against permanent factions. Cannon also states that creating a faction is a declaration of war in the party.

On the face of it, both groups are trying to avoid a split, and this is pretty healthy. (The situation in the DSP, where significant figures in the minority group are elected to important positions, certainly beats the hell out of the situation in the British SWP, which has just had a conference at which the leading oppositionist of the past few years, John Molyneaux, got a vote about the same as the vote for the Percy faction in the DSP, and the leadership of the British SWP still wouldn’t put him on the leading committee, even as a representative of the minority. In that respect the internal culture of the DSP is, probably reluctantly, becoming more realistic than that of the British SWP.)

The test of the ability of the two groups to coexist in one organisation will be what happens to the full-time staff. Traditionally, in the old monolithic DSP, full-timers who became oppositionists were rapidly exiled, one way or another, to distant places. It’s clearly difficult to do this in the new situation in the DSP, when a significant number of the full-timers are on the Percy side.

It’s hard to imagine the DSP functioning very well without a number of the Percy supporters, even allowing for the fact that the DSP apparatus is spectacularly top-heavy in relation to the size of the membership.

I might laugh a bit about the tensions that must exist in DSP’s Chippendale hive in the current heat wave, but nevertheless being a full-timer for a small socialist group is a difficult business for a lot of the time. People do it out of commitment, rather than careerism, because the rewards for full-time socialist activity in a small group are minimal, compared with the rewards available outside in a generally prosperous capitalist society.

Add to that the stress of two groups being at daggers drawn, metaphorically speaking, and life obviously becomes that much more difficult. The real short-term danger and possibility of a split lies in the day-to-day tensions, and how far the Boyle majority decides to push its prerogatives of leadership. Splits in small socialist groups often even have a semi-accidental aspect.

This kind of problem is accentuated by the political tasks that the Boyle group has imposed on the organisation. Whether or not to maintain the, in practice largely fictional, Socialist Alliance was the main overt point of conflict between the two groups.

The Socialist Alliance has now been on ice for six months. The ISO, the second largest affiliate, has remained formally part of it, but has stopped attending meetings or doing anything to maintain the organisation, and that is unlikely to change.

It’s obvious that the Boyle group will try to impose on the Percy group the notion of general party discipline to press it to help in the activities of the Socialist Alliance, but it’s very hard to imagine the members of the Percy group doing that with any enthusiasm when they, quite sensibly in my view, regard it as a waste of time.

Having said all that, it’s still a quite significant development that the two groups seem to be bunkering down to try and coexist in one organisation. In practice, this obviously means that both groups have to contradict the extremely narrow conception of Leninism that they have so far held in common. That break with the caricature of Leninism passed down from Zinoviev, even if it’s only empirical initially, is altogether a good thing.

It seems obvious to me that the Boyle group is by no means homogeneous. The unanimity at the conference was obviously dictated by factional necessity, but there are two currents in the Boyle group: the assorted ignorant ultralefts that Boyle has assembled as his own personal claque, and the group of older, and some young, more politically educated, members who are supporting Boyle largely because of grievances with the Percy regime, some even dating back to the days of Jim Percy. It is to be hoped that the second group will serve as some restraint on the primitive ultralefts.

In the very short term, the Boyle faction may even gain a little more ground from the adhesion of a couple Vicar of Bray types, who often exist in small socialist sects. On the other hand, the Percy supporters may pick up a few people who become disillusioned in the process of trying to carry out the Boyle perspectives.

Mike Karadjis and others have talked in glowing terms on the Green Left list about the wide-ranging nature of the internal discussion and the seriousness of the written debate. I’ve read most of it, but not quite all (if any kind fairy wants to add to my collection of DSP internal bulletins in a discreet way, they’re welcome to do so) and I’m inclined to concur with Karadjis. It has been a pretty serious discussion. It has been the most sustained internal discussion in any Australian socialist group since the upheaval in the CPA in the mid-1960s.

The question arises, now that the conference is over, why not publish the whole lot, with suitable discretion as to names and other material that ought not to be in the public domain, but retaining the political essence of the debates?

It’s totally eccentric in this day and age to have a serious discussion like that and not make it available to the thousands of others on the socialist left in Australia whose political interests and affairs are being discussed in such microscopic detail internally in the DSP.

The classic precedent exists in the Russian Social Democracy, later in the Russian Bolshevik Party and in the early Comintern before Stalinisation, in which all the political debates were public. The old internal bulletins of past political debates in revolutionary socialist organisation can be of serious interest to students of Marxist politics, and can raise their political and cultural level.

I well remember the interest, verging on excitement, with which I reacted as a young man when Nick Origlass opened up the packed washing cupboard in his tiny flat and made available to myself and Denis Freney the old bulletins of the US SWP and British RCP internal discussions (seven shelves of the cupboard were crammed with Trotskyist political literature, and only two shelves actually contained washing). Studying those debates was part of my Marxist political university, so to speak.

Being a notorious and determined political inquirer I’ve managed to get hold of the majority of the bulletins containing the debate in the DSP, but most people on the left are unlikely to put the effort into acquiring them that I routinely do. Why deprive the rest of the left of the interest and education that comes from studying the documentation of a serious conflict like this?

A lot of the issues and elements in the conflict in the DSP are not yet played out. I wish all the participants in the debate and conflict well, other than perhaps Boyle and some of his less pleasant close supporters. How it all plays out will obviously affect the future of the far left in Australia.

PS. Anyone who is puzzled by my extreme antagonism to Boyle and his clique should carefully consider Boyle’s own contribution over the past couple of years on the Green Left discussion site and Marxmail, and the contributions of Dave Riley and John Tognolini on the Green Left site. They should also study the crude and backward interventions of obvious supporters of the new DSP majority on Sydney Indymedia.

January 19, 2006, Marxmail

Boyle appeals to backwardness

It’s hard to know where to start in responding to the new DSP national secretary Peter Boyle’s post directed at me.

He demonstrates in spades my general point that he makes the most extraordinary appeals to backwardness, mainly directed at an audience inside the DSP. I don’t remember accusing him, personally, of racism, other than pointing out that it was racist of him to refer to me as whitey.

The whole exchange over this question arose from my criticism of a report on the Marrickville by-election by Boyle’s partner and fellow DSP leader Pip Hinman. I drew out what I believe were racist implications in Hinman’s allegation that the Labor Party had bribed ethnic communities in the more working-class end of Marrickville.

This implied racism in Hinman’s report is thrown into even bolder relief right now, as right-wing media demagogues such as Paul Sheehan, and the Liberal Party, are making accusations essentially similar to Hinman’s: that Labor operators allegedly stack branches with Arabs and are soft on crime allegedly carried out by members of Arab communities.

The DSP leaders have been notably silent about this xenophobic dual attack on Arab communities and the Labor Party.

When I made my general point about this question concerning the Marrickville by-election, Boyle went off his tree in several posts on the Green Left list, calling me whitey and implying that I wouldn’t know anything about such matters.

At the time I was a bit flummoxed as to why a responsible socialist political leaders would carry on like Eldridge Cleaver, but in retrospect it’s now clear that he was gathering an internal faction in the DSP partly by appealing to such backwardness.

Boyle talks about me being a blowhard who has built nothing. Really, that’s a reaction to what Ed Lewis and I have built in the past three years, Ozleft, which has acquired a certain audience in the labour movement in these parts. It’s worth noting that if I acquiesced in the manoeuvres and projects of the Boyle leadership I would immediately become an honoured socialist independent. But if I then had any serious disagreements with the DSP, I would be once more consigned to the sectarian darkness now occupied along with myself by three successive groups of Socialist Alliance independents who dared to disagree with the DSP.

January 19, 2006, Marxmail

The essence of the differences

Joaquin legitimately asks what is the essence of the political differences between the two groups in the DSP.

I’ve already commented on the overt and formal political differences between the two sides in previous posts, which are all available on the Ozleft homepage.

Ed Lewis has briefly summarised these political issues as follows:

So far, all that has come out of the DSP is a letter to the Socialist Alliance national executive, which includes a statement that there will be more news of the conference on January 25, in the first issue of Green Left Weekly for the year.

The Percy faction wanted to cut back activity in the Socialist Alliance, largely because Green Left Weekly sales have plummeted, DSP membership has fallen (some DSP members have resigned from the DSP and just kept up their Socialist Alliance membership), DSP finances have been in crisis, some Resistance (youth group) branches have collapsed, many Socialist Alliance branches have stopped meeting, most of the Socialist Alliance affiliates except the DSP and Workers Liberty (and Workers Liberty’s commitment is mainly verbal) have stopped contributing to the Alliance and a number of prominent independents have dropped away after being done over in leadership battles.

The Percy faction wanted to go back to calling the DSP Democratic Socialist Party, rather than Democratic Socialist Perspective. It characterises the Boyle leadership as liquidationist as well as Social Democratic.

Greg Adler has also commented.

Taken together, these posts summarise the main political issues that appear to be in dispute.

My posts, particularly my last post, include observations about the internal dynamics of the DSP, as I understand them and it seems to me that this kind of comment and analysis is both legitimate and contributes to political clarification.

The political issues, the dynamics of the organisation, and its interaction with the rest of the left in the labour movement and society are all part of the story. If anyone thinks I’m wrong about any of these questions, they should comment on what I say and I’ll either defend my position or correct any errors that I may be shown to have made, whichever is appropriate.

On the very limited Stalin analogy, which I made, I stand by that. As I’ve said, repeatedly, I’m not suggesting that Peter Boyle is a mass murderer like Stalin, just that Boyle has one thing in common with Stalin: that he has assembled a majority faction on the basis of verbal ultraleftism and constant appeals to backwardness. My evidence for this view is the deliberately primitive nature of many of his contributions to public discussion on the Green Left list, and even to some extent on Marxmail, although he has been better behaved on Marxmail.

In retrospect, his outbursts on on the Green Left list, while overtly directed at me, actually had the dimension of being directed at the ranks of the DSP to get support for his incipient faction by a direct appeal to ultraleftism and the encouragement of a rather primitive outlook and practice. Clearly this has worked pretty well for him in the internal battle in the DSP. Boyle’s internal opponents, and myself externally, didn’t have a very clear idea of what was happening in this respect until it happened. In that way the analogy with Stalin’s rise to power seems to me a very powerful one.

I don’t mean to infer that Boyle has the kind of brutal or barbaric mentality of Stalin, or that in the future he will kill his opponents. I’m just talking about the early Stalin, during his rise to power.

Even Trotsky, who loathed Stalin, pointed out that had Stalin understood the outcome of developments later in his political rule, the early Stalin would probably have drawn back from the path on which he had embarked.

I don’t accept Shane’s proposition that analogies and comparisons from the history of the Bolshevik movement are totally out of date and of no use in the current discussion.

The reason I make the analogy is that the more interested people in Marxist groups know a fair bit about the history of the Russian Revolution, and it’s certainly one of my lifelong personal preoccupations.

This is a debate among Marxists and such analogies can illuminate.

On Joaquin’s question about the regroupment process. Since the early 1990s I’ve been agitating among anyone who will listen for the general idea of a political discussion among Marxists, directed towards regroupment: an open discussion that would involved the members of the different Marxist groups, leftists active in the Labor Party and the Greens, and independents.

I’ve frequently said that the two poles of this discussion would be what a socialist society would look like and what is a socialist program since the fall of Stalinism; and the second pole would be strategy and tactics in the labour and workers’ movement.

When the DSP initiated the Socialist Alliance, they deliberately constructed it to exclude from the process either open discussion of the above points or participation in the discussion by people active in the Labor Party or the Greens.

They deliberately confined it initially to a top agreement between the leaders of socialist sects, and later they used their customary foot-stamping “democratic” rhetoric to impose their political line on everyone else in the alliance, with disastrous results.

Myself and others set up Ozleft to advance an alternative notion of regroupment to the one proposed by the DSP, and as everyone can see these questions are still on the table on the far left in Australia and in a number of other countries.



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