The DSP and democratic centralism


Contributions to an exchange on Marxmail 

Bob Gould

As my name has been mentioned in the discussion on the DSP and democratic centralism on Marxmail, I’d make the following observations, without prejudice to a longer article I’m writing about the two platforms in the dispute in the DSP, which article I hope will appear in a day or so.

Firstly, one of the better things about Ozleft is that it’s a useful venture with a significant audience that proceeds without Ed Lewis and myself feeling that it’s necessary for us to agree with each other on everything under the sun. We have different interests and preoccupations within a generally socialist framework. That arrangement seems entirely sensible to us. It’s a pity that a bit of similar public creative diversity, without rancour, couldn’t be practised by the inhabitants of the socialist propaganda groups, on the affairs of which we comment from time to time.

I’d like to say to Richard that I share his irritation with Joaquin Bustello and others who insist that all the socialist propaganda groups should go out of business. I disagree with that view in principle and any comment that I make is directed at trying to knock some tactical and strategic sense into the often thick heads of the pretentious leaders of some of these groups.

The long-term perspective, from my point of view, is that these groups should conduct an internal and external political discussion on unresolved strategic and political questions, without the grotesque rancour that often passes for public discussion. This is particularly the case, it must be said, with the Boyle leadership of the DSP.

The situation we face is that the ostensibly socialist groups are unlikely to eclipse each other definitively in the medium term, or even in the long term, the way the Bolsheviks eclipsed other groups during the process of the Russian Revolution. Even then the Bolsheviks didn’t so much eclipse the other groups as incorporate the best elements of them in the context of an evolving revolutionary process.

My holiday reading has included the very fine book by Rick Kuhn on Henrik Grossman, and Tariq Ali’s very moving novel of 10 years ago, which I somehow missed, about Ludwig, the courageous pre-war Soviet agent who broke with Stalin in 1938. You get the flavour from both these book of the extraordinary variety of militants from different socialist backgrounds that the Bolsheviks incorporated with a minimum of rancour.

I submit to Richard Fidler, who I’ve met and seems a sane enough bloke, that the Boyle bunch are not at all like the Bolsheviks in this respect, and that’s quite clear from the vicious nature of their public debate with anyone who says boo to them on important tactical questions.
It stumps me why Fidler, from such a distance, should accept wholesale the Boyle bunch’s rather fraudulent prospectus, or bill of goods, about themselves and their own role.

This may be due to one of the negative features of cyberspace: that it’s reasonably possible to build a kind of cyberspace Potemkin Village and have halfway sane people somewhere else in the world believe you. A striking example of that phenomenon is, of course, the World Socialist Web Site, but the Boyle bunch aren’t terribly far behind in this line of business.

Why does Richard Fidler feel it’s necessary to reject wholesale the carefully argued critical position of the DSP minority, presumably out of some kind of misguided loyalty to his imagined cyberspace version of the DSP. The problem with that approach is that nobody at all on the socialist left in Australia except the Boyle bunch concurs with this version of reality.

A good example of this kind of thing is Boyle’s laboured account of the size and influence of the Socialist Alliance. The Boyleites talk blithely of 500 non-DSP members of the alliance and 700 people working on its election campaign. Well, nobody in Australia that I know can see anything like that number of independents. It’s largely a self-serving myth. There may be 50 or 60 such people nationally, but there aren’t 500. The rest are obviously the names of people who signed up out of solidarity to get the Socialist Alliance registered for the elections, which is entirely reasonable but in saner organisations they’d be regarded as contacts, not really members of anything for broader political purposes.

Another example of Potemkin Village puffery is the business about trade unionists who collaborate with the DSP-Socialist Alliance as a deliberate political act. There are probably a few such people nationally, but in the past six to nine months the overwhelming majority of what the Boyle group previously called the militant trade union current, have despite the indirect abuse of the Boyle bunch pursued pretty much the same tactic as most other trade unionists concerning the elections: gritting their teeth to work for the election of a Labor government.

It was very striking that almost no trade unionists in the broad militant trade union current responded in any significant way to the DSP’s expose-Labor rhetoric.

A further example of this puffery is the proposition that Socialist Alternative is significantly smaller and less important than the DSP. I have some very sharp political disagreements with the sterile propagandism of the Socialist Alternative leadership, but even that well-known Australian personality, Blind Freddy, can see that Socialist Alternative in practical terms is in the same league as the DSP in membership, and its membership is overwhelmingly younger than that of the DSP.

It’s also pretty apparent that the Socialist Alternative members’ political cultural level, while narrowly focused, is higher than that of DSP members. Socialist Alternative has a number of academic members who are quite capable of writing useful books from a Marxist point of view, which is strikingly not the case with the cobbled-together Boyle majority in the DSP.

Richard Fidler waxes lyrical about the publishing activities of the DSP, which were at one stage quite significant, but it must be said that those activities very largely took place on the watch of what is now the DSP minority, and nothing much has happened on the publishing front since the Boyle bunch took over.

That brings me back to the point: why is Fidler so confident from such a distance that the Boyle version of events in Australia is so accurate? It stumps me a bit.

I’m tempted to advance a psychological explanation. Over a long period of life in the labour movement and the left I’ve encountered a phenomenon among former members and allies of the Communist Party that they doggedly defend the party in all its different transmutations, no matter how divorced from reality the current line may be.

Ex-members often have a sort of nostalgic party-nost for the emergence of better developments in the group of their initial allegiance or friendship. Ex-members or allies from a long time ago aren’t confronted in a sharp way with the strategic problems facing people who are still active. I don’t want to be too tough on Fidler about this, as there’s a streak of that in most of us, but in Fidler’s case it seems pretty unscientific, and even brutal, of him to wipe off the political views of, for instance, the DSP minority, in such a summary way.

Marxmail, January 1, 2008

I think Richard Fidler is being just a bit cute. We’re both lurkers on Marxmail most of the time, but it’s worth considering some of the questions that interest either or both of us.In my view, for instance, the central point about many of Joaquin Bustello’s contributions is the way he seems to challenge the existence of a modern working class, or even that a working class for itself has ever existed in advanced capitalist countries.

On other matters, such as his lucid description of the actual practice of most propaganda groups against perceived rivals, I agree with him in art, and in a recent post he has expressed some of the points extremely effectively.

Fidler doesn’t seem too worried about Bustello’s questioning of the actual existence of a workers’ movement, or at least doesn’t come out to argue those questions. He does, however, argue with Bustello in defence of the current DSP leadership’s general political practice.

Fidler has the hide to attack me and Ozleft for allegedly trying to stir up trouble in the DSP. The very fact that he poses it that way indicates his preference for the political orientation of the current DSP leadership. He certainly seems to accept the DSP leadership’s Potemkin Village rhetoric about their own role.

The current conflict in the DSP obviously wasn’t caused by Ozleft, or me. It’s kind of flattering in a way to become the kind of figure, in a tiny context, that Trotsky became to the Stalinists, but it’s obviously not true.

Most people who read either of our contributions to discussion are unlikely to be particularly naive. Certainly I’m not, and I acquit you of naivete too, but it’s as phoney as Upton Sinclair’s brass cheque for you to intervene in the debate in the DSP in a public way, obviously on the side of the Boyleites, implying that the conflict in the DSP was stirred up by Ozleft.

One aspect of Fidler’s rhetoric about troublemakers that sticks in my throat is the implication that flows from it that the DSP minority is some kind of group of indisciplined drongos who are susceptible to troublemaking. We both have known some of the personalities in the minority for a very long time, and I’ve had the sharpest conflict with some of them.

The idea that Ozleft’s contributions are any kind of major factor in the DSP minority’s political evolution flatters Ozleft but displays contempt for the minority, and is not reasonable or warranted on your part.

I draw your attention to two recent contributions on Green Left and Marxmail, one by Max Lane today, which is a careful statement of the views of the opposition on some of the matters in dispute. I also draw your attention to the bizarre, bombastic contribution of Peter Boyle in the past couple of days, which requires some careful examination.

Boyle argues, correctly, that the defeat of the Howard government was brought about by a working class mobilisation. He then goes on to say in a convoluted way that the DSP-Socialist Alliance and its various interventions were a supremely important factor in that mobilisation, and in passing he rubbishes other people on the far left whose interventions, he says, were unimportant.

He says the DSP and its trade union allies, who he doesn’t name or define, were the major factor leading to a couple of one-day stoppages and mass mobilisations in Melbourne, which were supposedly a major factor in Labor’s electoral victory.

Any rational person in Australia looking at the actual sequence of events would conclude that the major factors mobilising working class sentiment were the ACTU advertisements, the strikes and mobilisations (which also took place outside Victoria) and the trade unions’ marginal seat campaign, all taken together.

It’s also worth noting that no significant trade union force among the militant unions took up the DSP’s exposure-Labor rhetoric as a primary task during the election campaign. If anything, they did the opposite. So much for them being political allies of the Boyle bunch.

The largely electoralist trade union marginal seat campaign was spectacularly effective. Labor won 18 of the 21 targeted marginal seats. In addition to that, Labor won many more seats from the Coalition in NSW than it did in Victoria.

The Boyle bunch’s retrospective claim to being a major factor in the outcome of the elections is obviously self-interested nonsense, and seen to be so just about everyone in the workers’ movement, including the DSP opposition.

As for Ozleft allegedly stirring up trouble in the DSP, I spend a bit of time arguing with the Boyleites about their aberrant behaviour because, from a Marxist point of view, it’s a good way of raising political questions. Surely that’s what serious public debate on socialist strategy should involve.

It irritates me profoundly when an experienced political person like Richard intervenes in a public way on one side of a development such as the dispute in the DSP and then tries to pass that off as general solidarity with the DSP. When you adopt that posture you implicitly assume we’re all a bunch of mugs.


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