Propaganda versus agitation

by

Bob Gould

One by product of the explosion in the DSP is very healthy. Apart from a bit of rearguard bluster from the DSP majority, almost everyone else who participates in the discussion adopts a rational tone, discussing the political problems of the far left in a more open and concrete way than has been the case in my memory.

It’s also my impression that a lot of people who’ve previously been sheltered from such debates, such as the ranks of Socialist Alternative, are reading this material, although not participating much.

In the spirit of this serious discussion, I want to take up Tom O’Lincoln on a few points he has made on Leftwrites. There’s still a slight tone of superiority in Tom’s response to the DSP minority. He counterposes implicitly the practice of his own organisation and its theoretical underpinning, saying: “what the far left can achieve today is the primitive accumulation of cadres”.

In the context of agreeing with the view of the DSP minority from his own experience that while the overblown perspectives of the DSP majority are disastrous I wish to examine this notion of the primitive accumulation of cadres in light of what I know of Tom’s organisation.

Firstly, the revolving door. I first met Dave Nadel about 44 years ago at a Student Labor Federation conference, at which we finally took back the Australian Student Labor Federation from the industrial Groupers, who had controlled it for 15 years. One very funny feature of that conference, which all present still laugh about, was a real revolving door. As votes were taken, both sides would go through the door on one side of the hall after voting, and come back through the door on the opposite side and vote again.

At its worst, the primitive accumulation of cadres in a mainly student-based organisation is a bit like that. The mainly student comrades join the group, learn a bit about how to talk the talk and in a relatively short time, as they learn that the talk doesn’t intersect with reality very much, they slip out through the other door, often innoculated against far left politics, which they afterwards remember as something unrelated to the real world.

This tendency is, in my experience, accentuated in defensive periods because the difficulties of real participation in the class struggle in all its forms are greater and the tendency to pure propagandism is reinforced by the objective situation. So you end up with quite fantastic attempts to theorise it and relate it in an entirely literary way to the Leninist and Bolshevik tradition, which isn’t at all reasonable theoretically or historically.

My observations are based on Socialist Alternative in Sydney, where I live, and perhaps these tendencies are more acute there.

In Sydney Socialist Alternative is extremely insular. It recruits a bit on campuses because of energetic propaganda activity, but then turns insulating its members from the external world into a thoroughly self-reinforcing system, the eccentric outward form of which I’ve described elsewhere.

You almost never see the newer members of the group anywhere without an older member shepherding them. For instance, as the rising tide of rebellion of against electricity privatisation has rolled in, Socialist Alternative has shown a bit of interest. Two Socialist Alternative members have turned up to a couple of the open meetings of the anti-privatisation committee: one of the younger members with the inevitable shepherd.

At one of the meetings an older member from interstate made the inevitable intervention that the rebellion wouldn’t be much use unless there was mass industrial action, which was in my view a timeless proposition that was not based on a serious appraisal of the ebb and flow of the real struggle.

Tom presents the timeless primitive accumulation of cadres as wise advice to the DSP minority, who have a certain history of this themselves, although they may be trying to reappraise their tactical and strategic ideas, if the careful posts by my partial namesake, Bob Goulash, are any guide.

In this talk about primitive accumulation of cadres there is little scope for the exemplary activities of someone like Kim Bullimore, Ian Rintoul or Ian Jamieson, who by their patient and long-standing agitation in particular spheres generate immense respect for revolutionary socialists, laying the basis for recruitment to their particular group.

People attracted to socialist groups by the activities of such people are likely to be more durable and long-term recruits than those recruited on the basis of initial enthusiasm during orientation week to entirely literary propositions about socialism.

I’ve also developed a certain respect for Solidarity, from the predecessor of which Tom departed some time ago. Solidarity contains quite a few independent-minded older members, mainly from the ISO, who’ve carved out modest but important niches in various agitations, and even in a scattering of unions. One bloke has even committed the capital crime, to propagandists, of getting himself elected to an important union position.

These older ISO members seem to interact quite harmoniously with the younger group, who are mainly students but who have been recruited to socialist politics in various student movements, rather than purely by way of abstract propaganda about rather remote socialist theory.

The younger members of the groups that came together to form Solidarity also seem to be learning a bit and get involved in such mass movements as develop in what is still a difficult and defensive period.

The weakness of the younger ones may be that they’re a bit a-theoretical and don’t read as much as the force-fed members of Socialist Alternative, and they’re not as erudite about the works of Marx, Lenin and Mick Armstrong. The hurly burly of the struggle will eventually get these people more interested in theory, in my view.

I don’t think primitive accumulation of cadres in current Australian conditions has anything to do with Leninism.

Independently of this critique, I still have considerable respect for the intellectual achieve of people such Tom, who has written well about Australian labour movement history, and Rick Kuhn, whose recent book about Grossman should be obligatory reading for anyone interested in the history of the Marxist movement.

From my point of view, though, talk about primitive accumulation of cadres is a blind alley for a socialist group. I put this forward in the spirit of healthy discussion of such matters, which I hope is just beginning.

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One Response to “Propaganda versus agitation”

  1. thoughtful Says:

    A very useful contribution. Bob, your writing is so much better when it is like this. The personal attacks of the past, I hope, are over.

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