A balance sheet of the crisis in the DSP

by

Bob Gould

The DSP is about to hold a decision-making conference on January 3-6. Delegates have been elected and the leadership has a majority a little larger than last time.

The basic positions of the two contending groups have been made publicly available, producing a small flurry of comment on the website Marxmail, where Louis Proyect seems more preoccupied with the secondary matter of the documents having been made publicly available.

The preoccupation of Louis Proyect with public debate is correct up to a point and the major debates in the Bolshevik Party were conducted publicly. The practise of keeping key political discussion internal to socialist groups is a product of the Stalinisation of the Comintern.
Nevertheless, I think it is quite unsound to insist that every detail of an internal discussion such as this one should be made public. The rather extravagant organisational chop-chop and personal abuse that takes place internally in propaganda groups largely isolated from the labour movement, the working class and the class struggle, ought not to be made public.
In all our comments on Ozleft on the internal battle in the DSP we’ve been at pains to deal with the political essentials and not broadcast some of the internal chop-chop, even when it has been available.

Small groups have a certain right to privacy in their internal arrangements, and a distinction should be made between the political issues in dispute, which should be public, and other matters, most of which should be private. We have the example before us of the bizarre so-called US SWP discussion list associated with Marxmail, much of which consists of nasty gossip, particularly the eccentric preoccupation of Philip Ferguson from New Zealand with speculation and vindictive gossip about who owns the US SWP’s assets.

Socialist decency and Marxist good sense should dictate a certain discretion in such matters.
A cursory initial reading of the two platforms in the DSP could remind one of the rather effective Robert Crumb cartoon, which I (still feeling pain from the bitter split with John and Jim Percy and their supporters) reprinted in Australia on the back of a Zap comic book I published nearly 30 years ago as a commercial venture. It had two identical, snarling figures confronting each other, both holding placards. One said: Neo-Trotskyist Progressive Socialist Radical Action Club for International Peace, and the other said: Socialist Progressive Club for International Democracy Thru Radical Prototrotskyist Action.

One is also reminded, a bit, of the split chapter in Earl Birney’s novel, Down the Long Table, which is reproduced on Ozleft.

Despite the similarities in the political positions of the two groups on a lot of questions, the DSP seems to be heading towards a split, which I regard as undesirable, in the current conditions of a declining, stagnating socialist left.

The two groups have in common a rather exaggerated emphasis on what they view as the enormous impact of the activities of Chavez in Venezuela for the prospects of the Australian left. I don’t want to be misunderstood on this.

I have considerable regard for Chavez as the leader of a leftward-moving national movement with a strongly socialist aspect. Any socialist has to consider a revolutionary nationalist figure who quotes Trotsky, calls Bush the devil and pushes along a revolutionary process in Venezuela, as a progressive figure in current global politics. Socialists who can’t see that aspect of Chavez are both brain-dead and totally lacking in socialist passion.

In addition to that, Venezuela is sitting on the biggest oilfields outside the Middle East, which gives it some clout in the world, and Chavez so far has resisted the temptation to crush opposition by bureaucratic means.

It’s not entirely clear to me whether the process in Venezuela has clearly entered a socialist phase but I’m respectful and enthusiastically supportive of Chavez and the Venezuelan masses and I follow the events in Venezuela with enormous interest.

Even so, the idea implicit in both platforms that the process in Venezuela is some kind of magic bullet for building the socialist movement in Australia is totally nuts from a Marxist point of view.

When I first got involves in Marxist politics, Michel Pablo waxed enthusiastic about the revolutionary process in the Third World as a kind of magic bullet. The ethos of that kind of debate in the Marxist movement is captured by Trevor Griffith in his play, The Party, in which Gerry Healy and Robin Blackburn battle it out, Healy emphasising the European working class and Blackburn holding Pablo’s view. (That didn’t stop Healy going on to develop his own version of the same kind of thing, in looking to Qaddaffi’s Libya and Saddam’s Iraq as the magic bullet for the socialist revolution in the West.)

Somewhat later, the DSP at the initiative of Jim Percy, and initially the US SWP, waxed lyrical about the revolutions in Grenada and Nicaragua. At Jim Percy’s initiative, the DSP even published a pamphlet about Nicaragua called The Cuban Revolution and its Extension, another variant on the magic bullet perspective.

There’s no doubt that the colonial revolts over many years since the 1940s, and their most radical moments, have had a progressive impact to some extent on the consciousness of the working class in the West, but it’s thoroughly fanciful, and a genuine triumph of hope over experience, to translate that into some notion, which is implicit in both platforms, that an energising influence from Venezuela can revive the socialist movement in Australia.

Socialists in Western countries have a moral obligation to solidarise with revolutionary movements in the Third World, particularly those such as the one in Venezuela that have a socialist aspect, but the idea that this will solve the problems of the socialist movement in Australia is basically an attempt to avoid developing an effective strategy for the revival of the socialist movement.

I don’t say this with any degree of triumphalism, because working out a real perspective is a major task and I don’t have any automatic schemas, but clutching on to overseas models in this way is a major factor in the isolation of Marxists, and their removal from reality, in imperialist countries.

On other matters in dispute between the two platforms, the minority is more realistic than the cobbled-together majority led by Peter Boyle. The minority makes mincemeat of the fantastic pretensions of the majority, which it quite accurately refers to as “clowning”.

The minority raises a question that’s a central part of the problem facing socialists: the drop in the cultural level of Marxists, and specifically the members of the DSP. In my view, this applies with considerable force to most of the far left. The minority proposes for the DSP a forced march in Marxist education, and it is correct on the need for that, up to a point.

Again, while it’s necessary to try hard to get serious education going, the problems of doing so are considerable. There are things happening in the world of education and information that make serious study and Marxist development more accessible in one way, in that many things are on the internet, but more difficult in another, because current education arrangements tend to undermine sustained effort in self-education. Again, this is an area in which I don’t have a magic bullet, but the emphasis of the DSP minority in trying to counteract the dropping interest in Marxism is very important.

While I generally regard the sterile propaganda group emphasis of Socialist Alternative as a political obstacle to socialist development, there’s one good thing about Socialist Alternative: its central leader runs a quite wide-ranging personal bookstall at Socialist Alternative events in Melbourne and makes a strenuous effort to get the adherents of that group to read, albeit in within certain limits.

Another feature the two groups in the DSP have in common is a certain visceral hostility not just to the betrayals of Labor leaderships and the potential political betrayals of Green leaderships, but also a certain aristocratic contempt for the implied “stupidity” of the 99.9 per cent of the left half of Australian society who look to those leaderships.

In my view, back in 1986 or thereabouts, the DSP made a catastrophic political mistake in ditching the previous criterion in the Marxist movement for assessing the class character of existing workers’ organisations. The DSP decided then that the previous Marxist position was wrong in giving greater weight tactically to the class composition, the sociology, of labour parties and trade unions, than it did to the ostensible politics of their leaders.

The DSP has since been joined in that kind of analysis by the Taafites of the CWI (the Socialist Party in Australia) and even more extravagantly so, by the Socialist Equality Party and its associated World Socialist Web Site, which says all existing workers’ organisations are counter-revolutionary and the only political task of importance is to build the SEP as a separate socialist organisation (presumably in cyberspace, where they are mainly located).

This fundamentally flawed analysis, which basically dumps the sociology of mass organisations such as the Labor Party, the trade unions and the Greens in favour of unceasing polemics against the leaders of these organisations, is in my view a decisive and almost total, obstacle to elaborating a realistic perspective in Australian conditions.

Such a perspective must involve a concrete orientation to the masses on the left side of Australian society, who look to the existing organisations and leaders.

The strategic orientation, most boldly expressed in the DSP by the Boyle majority, is that bootstrap-lifting activity of the DSP, which pretentiously and without any rational justification calls itself an alliance, can achieve a big political shift in the relatively short term. Ratbag Radio Riley is the crudest exponent of this view, but this view pervades the whole of the majority platform.

The bad political consequences of this kind of orientation are demonstrated by the rather unusual people who go into print on the Green Left discussion site in defence of Boyle and co, such as the aforementioned Riley, the good-hearted enthusiast Luke (who has, however, a basically religious approach to politics, with a kind of emphasis on political conversion as a strategy), another bloke, a strange pro-Stalinist who libelled me some months ago as an agent provocateur because I was critical of Stalinist regimes, and who specialises in attacking trade union militants who are Labor Party members, such as Harkins in Tasmania, and attacking anyone who surfaces in the Labor Party in struggle on the left, as stooges of the Labor Party bureaucracy, and now Jeff Richards, a bloke of rather ultraleft inclination who has been around the left for donkey’s years and appears to base his political perspectives on long-standing grievances with the Percy bunch.

In my experience of socialist politics, you’re unlikely to build anything, even in the medium term, around people like that, particularly in the difficult conditions facing Marxists now.

It’s hardly surprising that many of the public supporters of the Boyle group are such extravagant voluntarists, because the whole Boyle political program, as demonstrated by their document made public on the web, is shot through with metaphysical and idealist voluntarism.

It focuses in a one-sided way on the prospects of the DSP as an organisation. It takes little account of the actual political conjuncture and the social circumstances in Australian society.

Once again, I don’t claim to have any philosopher’s stone on programmatic and strategic questions, but a long life on the left has drummed into me, often through negative experience, the general point that it’s necessary to have both a bit of a picture of the dynamics at work in society, the working class and the ruling class, and flowing from that Marxists should elaborate a strategic orientation based on such an attempt at understanding and analysis.

Crazed voluntarism is the oldest and most enduring political illness in the Marxist movement. Riley is the most extreme and incautious exponent of voluntarism, but Peter Boyle isn’t far behind.

There are two aspects to the majority view. One is the proposition that they have some kind of finished program and the second is that with enough activism, noise and denunciation of all and sundry, the masses will turn to them. This sort of approach was always pernicious, but it verges on being barking mad in Australian society in 2008.

The constant refrain of the Boyleites is that if the DSP only pushes harder the masses will turn to it, is metaphysics, and it’s at the core of all the thinking of the DSP majority leadership.

One of the problems with this sort of voluntarism for a socialist propaganda group is that the gap between this kind of politics and the external world widens the political gap between theory and practice to the point that many people starting with the best intentions pass through the propaganda groups fairly rapidly after a year or two of bootstrap-lifting activity, because it appears to achieve little, and come out the other side innoculated against what they think is Marxism, and cured in many cases, unfortunately, of radical politics entirely.

Lenin and his associates had an utterly different and more dialectical approach to politics. As serendipity would have it, for the past couple of weeks I’ve been reading Rick Kuhn’s moving and useful book, Henryk Grossman and the Recovery of Marxism. The last part, dealing with the evolution of Grossman’s ideas on Marxist economics, is extremely worthwhile, although it is heavy going.

The earlier part, describing Grossman’s leadership of a substantial Marxist organisation of the Jewish working class in Galicia before World War I, is easier to read and very moving and interesting.

After splitting from the Polish Marxist party, which had a chauvinist aspect and didn’t take seriously the organisation of the Jewish working class, Grossman’s organisation summed up its experiences in the following paragraph, which states extremely well the relationship between the socialist program and socialist organisation.

The following is from the new party’s founding document, on page 65 of Rick Kuhn’s book.

Recognition, based on scientific socialism, that all forms of social consciousness are to be explained in terms of — class — and group interests, is of great practical significance in the assessment of a proletarian party, ie social democracy. This is also significant to the extent that it is true in — reverse — that is, the class interests of the proletariat find their expression in party consciousness (in the form of a program); party consciousness is the multi-faceted expression of the proletariat’s class interests and the most far-reaching interpretation of conclusions drawn from the objective trends of real social development. Workers’ parties do not always fulfill this requirement (as evidenced by the PPSD). Both the character and the contents of collective party thought remain — directly dependent on the particular party’s adjustment to the very working class — whose expression it should be.

… The closest possible adaptation of the party’s organisation to the historical forms of the Jewish proletariat’s condition … could only be achieved through the mutual organic growth of the party’s organisation and the workers’ movement itself, just as the latter has grown out of capitalist society.

This small statement by Grossman’s new organisation is strikingly in accord with the approach adopted by Lenin throughout his political activities as they evolved. The program can only be seen as an organic part of the life of the socialist organisation, which has a very large tactical and class aspect, which is always concrete.

Belting out a program, as the Boyleites do, and inviting the masses to come along and submit to it, is the antithesis of the Leninist method of politics, in my view, and it usually leads to left-talking opportunism in practice.

Many of the issues raised in the two DSP documents require careful investigation and analysis, but the unscientific and rather destructive Boyle view will be rammed through at the DSP convention by a mechanical majority. The Boyle group will then be in a position to force the minority out of the DSP if it so wishes.

If the Boyle supporters decide to take that course they will obviously rely heavily on a crude and out-of-context reading of the Jim Cannon of his middle years and Zinoviev’s deeply flawed History of the Bolshevik Party. They will also, obviously, argue that the situation of permanent factions is a great obstacle to the development of the DSP and that removing the opposition will enable the DSP to leap forward.

That view is nonsense. With its deeply flawed political perspective the DSP will go nowhere. Just in the past day or two a respected old hand in the DSP, Max Lane, a minority supporter, has very carefully and cautiously put some of the views of the minority on Marxmail. While there’s something in the Boyle view that three years of factional warfare is debilitating (I can’t imagine the stresses and tensions that must exist. Factional disputes that I’ve been involved in have usually lasted about a year before a split. After three years the internal atmosphere must stressful and debilitating to both factions.) Nevertheless, further terminal splits in small socialist groups are deeply undesirable.

Max Lane’s modest contribution is a bit of an indication of a possible alternative line of development. Public discussion of strategy and perspectives on the far left could involve both the contending groups in the DSP and other far left groups and individuals, with an emphasis on political discussion rather than invective and abuse, and the suspension of all organisational manoeuvres and arbitrary actions while such a debate proceeds.

PS. Best of Irish and Marxist luck to all participants in the DSP event. Retain a sense of humour. Happy new year.

Originally posted on the Green Left Weekly discussion list. Discussion on GLW is indexed at the bottom of the GLW page.

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