Labor Tribune and left discussion

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An open letter to Marcus Strom

Bob Gould

Dear Marcus,

Congratulations on the efforts of you and your associaties in developing a website. As you’ll see from the link we’ve put up on Ozleft, in the view of Ed Lewis and myself your site will be a useful addition to socialist discussion in Australia.

It’s an interactive site, which is a good idea. Ozleft is slightly different, more a collection of documents, and for some time we’ve considered the problems of setting up an interactive site. The fact that you’ve done so is an entirely good thing.

I would hope that your site develops as a serious focus for socialist discussion, and we will participate in that vigorously. As I’m sure you’re aware, getting sensible socialist discussion going isn’t easy. One problem is evident on the Green Left Weekly site and Sydney Indymedia: people who don’t want a serious discussion often reduce any disagreement to extremely abusive language and ludicrous point-scoring that generates more heat than light.

The other, slightly less obvious but possibly even more important, problem is the deliberate avoidance of serious debate, even of the abusive sort. A number of groups and individuals on the far left avoid participating in any debate at all, and devote all their energies to a forlorn effort to develop their own institutions.

I note that you’ve had a number of articles on the Labor Tribune site for nearly a month and no one has responded to any of them, although a number of these articles contain plenty of meat for serious discussion. This underlines the general problem of getting a debate going on major questions.

For Ozleft, the nitty gritty is historical and theoretical articles, but in the an attempt to stimulate serious discussion we’ve engaged over the past couple of years in a kind of running commentary on events on the left and we’ve found, in practice, that this commentary, which people such as the DSP leaders resent and call gossip, has the practical effect of making Ozleft indispensable reading for many people, including many who don’t agree with us. Even when we don’t put up anything new for a few weeks, we still get lots of hits. That underlines that there is an audience for serious discussion, even if at the moment it’s a quiet sort of audience.

A few comments on your initial articles are called for to open a bit of a debate.

This is a secondary but not unimportant point. Why refer to people as Trotskyites? That’s the language of the gulag, the icepick and the Stalinist executioners. It’s particularly offensive when it’s baldly introduced by someone like yourself, whose whole social and cultural background is in the Stalinist movement, without any comprehensive statement about historical questions such as the Moscow Trials.

You’ve probably noted that about a year or so ago The Guardian and the CPA carried articles about the Moscow Trials but refused to engage in debate about the question when I challenged them.

The political problem of the historical baggage carried by the Marxist left isn’t the problem of “Trotskyites”, it’s the problem of Stalinism. Let’s have a discussion about this and related questions.

Also important is the tactical question of the Greens, a leftist small mass political organisation. Like you, I hold a Labor Party ticket, and in fact I’ve held one for 52 years and I’ve worked for the Labor Party during elections many times. As you’re aware, I’ve polemicised over the past couple of years against the DSP leadership’s unscientific Third Period exposure tactics concerning the Labor Party, which are based on the false theory that the Tories and Labor are equivalent capitalist parties.

Nevertheless, I find your dismissal of the Greens as what you call “middle-class” quite unscientific. This is an important discussion in Australian politics, both practically and theoretically. Assorted right-wing new-class theorists maintain a similar thesis, claiming that tertiary educated workers, who are the bulk of the Greens’ voters and activists, are not workers.

This theoretical construction is primitive and false. Viewed in a serious sociological way, the Greens’ constituency is working class, mainly from the new social layers of the working class.

The issue is further extended by the fact that the general political stance of the Greens is to the left of Labor, and this political stance is clearly the reason for the gradual increase in their vote to about 10 per cent.

Personally, I don’t join the Greens because I’m more interested, from a practical point of view, in the traditional blue collar and migrant constituency of the Labor Party. That’s where the big battalions are concentrated in the class struggle, which is the main reason why many socialists should be active in the Labor Party.

Nevertheless, the emergence of a small mass party politically to the left of Labor is no bad thing. I defend the Labor Party against Green sectarianism, and I defend the Greens against Labor Party sectarianism. In my view, the central strategic question in the labour movement is a united front between the Labor Party, the trade unions and the Greens.

These questions are particularly acute in the inner cities in Australia. I work hard for the Labor Party to hold its own electorally in competition with the Greens, but nevertheless a united front is critically important. If you concentrate your fire against the Greens as allegedly middle-class, which they aren’t anyway, you run a great risk of becoming a kind of left face for the rather lamentable traditional leadership of the Labor left, which covers for its failure to take a sharp political stand on many questions by an excess of sectarianism towards the Greens. This is sharpened by the fact that many of the more sectarian Greens are former supporters of the official Labor left who’ve fallen out with those leaders.

Marxist members of the Labor Party, in current conditions, should be addressing ourselves to rebuilding the Labor left from the bottom up, and this task hasn’t really yet been begun in the new conditions.

Viewed in that framework, the existence of the Greens as a serious force to the left of Labor is a good thing, and even if it wasn’t, it’s beyond anyone’s power to prevent this process proceeding.

You will have noticed that newly emerging right-wing ideologues addressing themselves to the left, such as David McKnight and Clive Hamilton, have taken on the task of trying to push both the Greens and Labor to the right. From this point of view, your serious article polemicising with McKnight is very useful, but I would handle some of those issues a bit differently, and we can discuss that.

You will have noticed that Clive Hamilton, the ideologue who says the masses should all tighten their belts, and who started his career as a researcher for Arthur Geitzelt, in his rather reactionary Quarterly Essay, takes a big swipe at the NSW left wing of the Greens, accusing them of being a bunch of “Trotskyites”.

To summarise, I see an enormously useful role for the Labor Tribune discussion site. In due course I’ll take up your sideswipe at me on the question of multiculturalism, and I’ll present more rounded material on a number of the questions I’ve raised above. I anticipate that you web moderator will have quite a task.

There are a lot of small sites, such as the Workers Liberty site, that are so parochial nobody ever reads them, but I don’t think that will be Labor Tribune’s problem. The more likely problem is that once serious discussion starts you’ll get a flood of abusive, anarchoid trolls both locally and internationally, and of course you’ll get a lot of the perennial abuse from the more Ratbag Radio hangers on of the current DSP leadership.

I’m sure you’ll be able to thread your way through those problems, and I anticipate that Labor Tribune will develop quite rapidly as a serious and calm site of labour movement, working class and socialist discussion.

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