It’s no secret that in the internal battle inside the DSP I have been, broadly speaking, more sympathetic to the minority that has now been expelled from the DSP and started publishing Direct Action. This sympathy was based on my estimate that, taken as a whole, they are a more serious group of people, particularly the younger ones, and more interested in Marxist theory, and to some extent the history of the labour movement.
I also believe that their critique of the DSP leadership’s Socialist Alliance adventure was by and large accurate and they had the best of that debate by a country mile.
The DSP majority, as most people on the left are aware, seemsto be led by political adventurers whom I trust politically about as far as I could throw the Sydney Town Hall.
Nevertheless, in the final analysis, political line and practice must be the point of departure in socialist politics. I am beginning to feel about the comrades producing Direct Action the way Cannon felt, as he reports in the History of American Trotskyism. In a very funny anecdote Cannon recounts that after the Left Opposition was expelled in 1928, they were contacted by the leaders of the old underground faction of the early American Communist Party who indicated in their communication that they were in agreement with Trotsky’s criticism of the line of the Comintern.
Cannon went up to Boston to see them, and he was initially a bit amazed that they insisted on using their pseudonyms from the old communist underground. They then had a discussion with Cannon in which they indicated their general agreement with the political line of the Cannon-led communist opposition, but at the very end of the discussion they said they only had one condition, that the new party had to be underground. As Cannon tells it, he had a little more desultory conversation, cracked a few jokes and put his hat on and went back to New York and never saw them again.
It seems to me that the producers of Direct Action are just a bit like the leaders of the old communist underground. Personally I have always been a bit of a Jacobite. In a long political life I have learnt that majorities are not always right and minorities are often right, and I am often initially inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to minorities.
Nevertheless, some minorities are just nuts and their politics are to be avoided. It seems to me that this applies to the strategic attitude displayed so far by Direct Action to the workers movement, the trade unions, the Labor Party, and the current struggle in NSW against electricity privatisation.
It has to be said that they are not entirely consistent in this approach. There is a striking difference between the attitude displayed to the trade union struggle by Ian Jamieson in his article about the Maritime Union conference on the one hand, and the articles by Owen Richards and Andrew Martin in Direct Action II, and Allan Myers on the web.
By and large I agree with Jamieson’s approach but the other articles are shot through with the attempt to score off political opponents, and are informed by a totally unscientific view of the workers movement. Andrew Martin baldly says that workers should campaign for disaffiliation from the ALP. (This is at precisely the moment when a major immediate strategic objective of the ruling class is to end union influence in the Labor Party. It seems to me that socialists who find that their strategy approximates to the strategy of the ruling class ought, if they had any sense, immediately re-examine their strategy.)
Martin also advances the timeless slogan, which apparently Direct Action shares with the Melbourne-based Socialist Party, of forming a new worker’s party. The problem with this demand is that it is plucked out of the sky.
In the Leninist tradition, slogans should have some connection with current developments and circumstances or they are worse than useless. The demand for a new workers party has no hinge with current Australian circumstances. It is in fact a left-sounding formula for abstention from the current conflicts in the workers movement.
Owen Richards’ article about the electricity privatisation struggle is clearly a kind of line article. He accuses all socialist groups that have taken an active interest in, and given any kind of support to, the agitation against electricity privatisation throughout the labour movement of “official optimism” and he ascribes that to a quote from Lenin.
He doesn’t give any of the context for this Lenin quote. When quoting Lenin, or anyone else among the founders of the Marxist movement for that matter, the context of the quote is always decisive. What we know about Lenin’s approach to politics is that he himself was, as his understanding evolved and developed, correctly obsessed with context. (In this respect Owens and the other RSP comrades ought to carefully study the new book edited by Slaoj Zizek about the mature development of Lenin’s philosophical approach in his encounter with Hegel in the middle of the First World War. Unfortunately, most people quoting Lenin do so in a rather mechanical materialist way that takes no account of the mature Lenin.)
Owen Richards should tell us the context of the quote he is using, or is he just tossing off some phrase that Doug Lorimer or Allan Myers came up with, from their undoubtedly extraordinary memories of the works of Lenin. Doug in particular is brilliant at finding the appropriate quote to buttress an argument, but in my view he is much weaker on context.
Owen Richards lambasts the assorted socialist groups and individual socialists who he says are soft on the bureaucracy, which most certainly includes yours truly, for ignoring the timeless role of the bureaucracy to betray all struggles. In this he sounds quite a bit like the World Socialist Web Site.
The difficulty with this approach is that it takes no account of contradictions and developments at all. Betrayers of the working class dominate everything in the workers movement according to this version and their power is so great that no partial victories are possible. The clear implication is that the working class has to wait around for the socialist revolution led by the particular self-appointed leadership (you can take your pick, World Socialist Web Site, RSP, or whatever).
Comrade Richards even says quite baldly “and because it is not a serious fight by those ‘leading’, the opposition to privatisation will most likely be defeated in either the short or medium term. It will be back next year or the year after, perhaps presented by a Liberal-led state government”.
What a bald, timeless statement of pessimism about the worker’s movement is involved in that view. All it is really saying is that nothing can be done short of the socialist revolution. Of course the ruling class is constantly pressing to privatise everything. That is what the battle is about. And it is just the fact that the masses, and even the existing trade union bureaucracy can see this that‘s driving the popular struggle against these privatisations.
Obviously the masses and the trade union bureaucracy aren’t struggling for the socialist revolution, but they are pretty anxious to defeat the privatisations.
Even the Russian Revolution wasn’t initially a revolution for socialism. It was a revolution for peace, land and bread — very simple immediate demands, relevant to the context of the time. In the modern context, fighting privatisation of essential utilities is pretty similar to the struggle for peace, land and bread.
Richards’ half-remembered out-of-context Lenin quote can be matched by other quotes much more in context. I can quote the founders of the socialist movement as well as the next person who has read a few books, but I much prefer to put my quotes in some sort of relevant historical framework. The ignorant trading of Lenin and Trotsky quotes in polemics is one of the besetting sins in discussions in the socialist movement and becomes a kind of lunatic parlour game, which in fact does a disservice to the founders, their political activity and their theoretical understanding.
Nevertheless the network of quotes that I would recommend to Richards and the RSP are from Trotsky’s writings on the struggle against fascism in Germany. In polemiscising against the Stalinists, who said the communists could never unite with the Social Democratic police chief in Berlin, who had been in a sense responsible for the murder of Liebknect and Luxembourg, Trotsky made the point that this was demagogy, and not useful to the struggle against fascism because it tended to blur the real conflicts of interest between the fascists and the bureaucracy in the workers movement, whose interests lay, in the final analysis, in preserving the workers movement, of which they were the bureaucracy.
Trotsky even made the rather prescient prediction that the Nazis would probably even put the Social Democratic police chief in jail, which in fact they did in due course.
This analogy, in context, is in fact quite useful. It’s not a question of “official optimism” as Owen Richards says, but a question of the kind of official pessimism that underlay the suicidal Stalinist Third Period in Germany. Richards’ approach to the trade union bureaucracy is pretty much the same as that of the Stalinists in Germany in 1932.
Richards goes on to say “the reality is there can’t be a serious union campaign against the neoliberal policies of a Labor government while the unions remain tied to the pro-capitialist and pro-neoliberal ALP. That the present Unions NSW can be persuaded or pushed into conducting such a campaign only covers for the ALP’s deliberate hamstringing of the unions as effective organisations in defence of workers’ immediate interests.”
The approach involved in this line article in Direct Action is completely useless from a number of points of view. It implies that nothing can be done short of the RSP becoming the leadership of the workers movement. That is not going to happen in the immediate future, or ever, if that approach is adopted.
It takes no account of the shifts in the workers movement and the bureaucracy and it takes no account at all of the development of a certain centrism in the workers movement in recent times. Rather than the bureaucracy being an absolutely fixed category, in these circumstances the crisis of leadership in the workers movement, reflected in falling union membership and the attempt to drive union influence out of social life in Australia, has actually produced a certain healthy centrism, dare I say it, a leftward moving centrism in the unions and by extension in the ALP.
For deep historical reasons it doesn’t take the form that the RSP group would like, of automatically swinging over to accept the leadership of the RSP. It takes the form of a vigorous rebellion within the historically defined ALP-trade unions set-up, spearheaded by the unions in NSW and the flashpoint of which is the struggle against electricity privatisation.
Corresponding to that, an unusual figure, John Robertson, has ended up as the leader of Unions NSW. Ironically, he became secretary because his worst immediate predecessors, who played such a reactionary role in the trade union movement, headed off to what they thought were greener pastures in business and politics.
Robertson over a period of years has set about renovating Unions NSW, easing out the more reactionary time-servers and building a broad union faction committed to more or less traditional trade union and industrial and labour politics, which can be roughly summarized as getting the best deal you can for your members by mobilising the unions as a cohesive industrial force and using union muscle in ALP affairs.
Owen Richards and others like him will say that is not the socialist revolution, but from a socialist point of view it beats the hell out of the immediately preceding set of arrangements, and it frightens the hell out of the ruling class.
The reason it frightens the ruling class is that it is an absolutely serious material obstacle to the neoliberal projects of the ruling class. A historical analogy that is appropriate is the rise of the CIO in the United States.
The CIO was initiated by a bunch of rather unlikely union bureaucrats led by the union bureaucrat of them all, John L Lewis. The revolutionary socialists, Trotskyists, and communists of the time, after considering the matter, threw themselves into building the CIO despite its bureaucratic leadership, and that became the decisive development in the American working class for a whole historical period. Not the socialist revolution but an enormous leap in the class struggle.
The actual struggle against electricity privatisation
On the socialist left, I am possibly the greatest sinner of the lot in the struggle against electricity privatisation. I have been involved in the struggle since day one, both in the ALP and in society at large. I have argued pretty vigorously for an open agitation, involving the ALP, the Greens, community groups and socialist groups, but have also fought very hard for recognition of the practical point that the careful collaboration with Unions NSW and the trade unions in general and with those Labor parliamentarians willing to stick their neck out is essential for victory in the struggle.
The struggle so far has been contradictory and uneven. It has had, so far, a number of very progressive results. The first result has been that it has in practice consolidated the implicit bloc between the unions in NSW, from both right and left backgrounds under the hegemony of Unions NSW, around an entirely healthy centrist program in the current conditions, of defending unions and workers interests against all comers, including if necessary, Labor governments.
This has polarised in practice both Labor party internal factions, the Socialist Left and the Centre Unity faction between on the one hand, a group based on unions and branch activists, and on the other a group based on the more reactionary ministers and politicians. This polarisation has now broadened throughout the Labor Party in NSW.
The older factional alignments are still not quite in the past, but the current operative factional division is the one between the unions and the ALP rank and file, and now even the ALP head office machine on the one hand, and the reactionary clique that runs the Labor cabinet, with the support of the big end of town and the media on the other.
In this battle, throughout the workers movement, people are choosing sides as we speak. The overwhelming majority of the rank and file in or around the workers movement are broadly speaking choosing the progressive side in this battle and leaving those on the right, and even significant numbers of hacks drawn from the ALP left, stranded. The right wing minority of the left is has become nakedly a left face for the Costa-Iemma government and the plans of the big end of town. In this battle there is also an aspect of the whole trade union movement entering into a defensive struggle against the reactionary aspects of the Federal Labor government on industrial matters.
In NSW, the Labor Against the Sell Off/Power to the People agitation has played a useful role. It was initiated by ALP rank and filers and ALP trade unionists and has now broadened to establish relationships with community groups, Greens and those socialist groups that can see what day it is, in a broad mass movement.
In the recent weeks, the collisions in the ALP parliamentary caucus have sharpened, not diminished and there is very little sign of anyone on the trade union side drawing back from the struggle against electricity privatisation.
It is a fact that this struggle is proceeding in the contradictory and frequently less than industrially militant way in which struggles are often conducted in the labour movement in a defensive period.
However, any socialist who can’t see that there is a real struggle proceeding in which one side is defending the interests of the working class, in however limited a way, and the other side is attacking the interests of the working class, is blinded by an underlying, misleading doctrinaire approach.
At this point, it is worth noting the recent victory of the rail union in a wage dispute. One would hardly call the leadership of the rail union the most socialist leadership in the workers movement. In the past that leadership has often contained and held back struggles when it should not have, but nevertheless, for that union leadership a sticking point has been reached on the question of redundancies.
That union leadership with all its limitations has been fighting redundancies for quite a while. It has become quite obvious that a number of hangers-on of the rightwing state ministers who have constructed their lousy little careers around the labour movement, are quite determined to crush the rail union if they can, and one of those types has even said so semi-publicly. One can imagine the bitterness of the ranks and leadership of the rail union when they saw the report of the anti-union statements by that particular go-getter, whose career was actually assisted in the past by his presence in the Centre Unity group.
The divisions between the unions as a whole and the government, are now very wide and very deep, and everyone can see it. There is broad sympathy even in the community at large for the struggle of the rail union against the government, and fortuitously for the rail union, the period of enterprise bargaining wage negotiation just happened to coincide with the international Catholic religious festival that was commencing.
Notwithstanding the fact that he himself is a quite religious Catholic, Nick Lewocki and the rest of the union leadership took advantage of the fortuitous circumstances to stand up the government on the wage negotiations and the threatened redundancies. Despite the government’s hysterical threats against the rail union and the madness of the bourgeois press talking about industrial terrorism, when the government went to the lawyers they found they could not do anything against a legal strike in a bargaining period, so the government caved in forthwith.
That union victory in a current struggle is certainly not the socialist revolution, and it has been achieved by judicious industrial tactics in a relatively non-militant way. Nevertheless it is a considerable victory for the workers in the industry in their struggle for wages and no further redundancies and it has considerable significance for the labour movement and the broader working class because it revives the idea that unions can achieve things even in the current bleak industrial climate.
Writers in Direct Action can prattle all they like about their dubious story that nothing can be achieved while the present leadership of the labour movement exists, but the fact of the class struggle demonstrates something completely different. (It’s worth noting the strategic approach to this dispute by John Robertson and Unions NSW, who are up to their ears in the rail dispute. The day after the union victory in the dispute, Robertson wrote an article for the reactionary Daily Telegraph, which the Murdoch editors felt obliged to run despite the fact that for the preceding two or three days the Telegraph had been denouncing the rail unions and Unions NSW as “industrial terrorists.
Robertson quite properly implied that the industrial dispute had not been directed at the Pope, or the Catholic religious festival but was dictated by industrial necessity. He went on to welcome the Pope and the religious festival but he used the occasion to invoke his interpretation of Catholic social doctrine and the implicitly pro-working-class aspects of it, and served up this interpretation gently but firmly to the visiting Pope, the pilgrims, and by implication to Cardinal George Pell.
The subtlety of Robertson’s approach in this article impressed me mightily and it is in stark contrast to the peculiar antics of some alleged socialists who seem to think there is something leftist about dredging up from the primitive past the Anglo-Australian ascendancy’s traditional bigoted slogan of no Popery.)
Getting back to the electricity privatisation struggle, Richards repeats the story pioneered by the anti-socialist so-called World Socialist Web Site, that the struggle against electricity privatisation will inevitably be defeated. He is prepared to countenance an outside possibility (gee whiz, thanks Owen) that we might defeat it this time by more conservative methods of struggle, but of course the ruling class will try again and eventually win.
It was JM Keynes who said in the long run we are all dead. That throwaway line from Keynes has a certain application to the class struggle in all its forms. It is worth considering that electricity privatisation was defeated 10 years ago in a quite non-revolutionary way by the normal methods of mobilising a majority of the state conference of the ALP against it.
It took the ruling class 10 full years to cajole a compliant Labor ministry to try again. If we defeat it on this occasion, as is beginning to look increasingly likely, the reactionary forces peddling the privatisation are likely to be so bruised by the experience that they will be cautious about trying it again for quite a while. The by-product of that situation will be to increase the self-confidence of the ALP rank and file and of any class-conscious or liberal elements in society, that such things as further privatisations can more easily be defeated by some sort of mobilisation.
The dark Third Period reactionary pessimism of Comrade Richards on this question underlines is a complete dead-end.
In developing this sectarian moralizing and presenting it as socialist principles the comrades of Direct Action are bit like the Bourbon kings who are said to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. In fact they are a bit worse than the Bourbon Kings, because they seem to have forgotten what they ever knew about the labour movement, the working class and the class struggle.
I own a bound set of the first 60 or so copies of the old Direct Action, which the old DSP produced after they split with me and my supporters back in the early 1970s. Those first 60 issues were in fact pretty good papers because they took up the day-to-day questions of the class struggle in a fairly concrete way from a broadly Marxist point of view. Even after we split apart way back then we shared a pretty well common view of not adopting an ignorant doctrinaire approach to the workers movement.
The new Direct Action has largely abandoned all that in favour of what the French Marxist leader Daniel Bensaid described as moralising sectarianism, which he said was the besetting sin of some Marxist groups. Bensaid was obviously right about that and his striking phrase still applies.
A further consideration is that I am completely baffled by is the question of who the producers of the new Direct Action think will respond to this moralising sectarianism. Where is the working class or left-leaning audience for that stuff?
It doesn’t exist, because in so far as people resist the reactionary neoliberal forces that are rampaging in society, they are looking for concrete and scientific solutions to their problems. Telling the people who are rebelling, of whom there is an increasing number, despite the conservative nature of the period, that they have to hang around waiting til a new socialist leadership establishes itself as the dominant force in the workers movement, was always nonsense from a Marxist point of view. It is a formula for sterile, hopeless isolation followed by disillusionment in the current difficult circumstances.
The worst aspect of this approach is that it is a formula for abstention in most important spheres of current working class struggle. For instance, I have made a point of letting a couple of people in the Direct Action group know about meetings of the electricity privatisation agitation, and I have said that even allowing for the fact that they are getting their organisation up and running, some of them should come along to participate in the agitation.
Well, they have never turned up, and now the political reason for that is a little clearer. They are developing what is implicitly a theory of abstention prettied up by left talk about the need for a real socialist leadership — ie them. The difficulty with that is no socialist leadership in recorded history has ever been constructed seriously such abstentionism.
Why should the working class or any leftward-leaning people pay the slightest attention to you when all you do is lecture them in a very grand way, and attack their existing organisatoins, even when the leadership of those organisation is are doing partially good things? The notion of training your supporters in the actual struggle, learning from the struggle, and adopting a united front strategy, is completely alien to this kind of political approach. It has nothing to do with the mature Marxist politics of past socialist leaders. People like Lenin and Trotsky, James P Cannon and James Connolly would turn in their graves at such doctrinaire nonsense being peddled as Marxism.