Source: Self-published pamphlet, November 13, 2002
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter
A week is a long time in politics, and it’s eight weeks since the DSP announced its intention to “dissolve” into the Socialist Alliance. Marxmail readers might recall that I wrote back in September exploring the contradictions and problems involved in the DSP’s proposal, and considerable discussion followed, raising questions of the united front, labour parties, the labour aristocracy, etc. Ben Courtice, Nick Fredman, Shane Hopkinson and others over the past few weeks have all questioned me about my concrete proposals for the united front.
I posted a response detailing my proposals for the united front, and the kind of regroupment of the left that I favour. There has been no comment on that post from anyone who asked for my views.
The discussion on Marxmail has been long and complex, and has parallelled a discussion here in Australia. The discussion of the DSP’s proposal has been very useful because it has necessarily forced all those in Australia who are in any way interested in a socialist unity or regroupment project to clarify their point of view.
Some, like Socialist Alternative and the Socialist Party, have responded in a self-satisfied way to the effect that few specific or comprehensive regroupments or public discussions among far left groups are possible or desirable at this time, and that their outfits are doing okay anyway.
In my view, that self-satisfaction of small groups is short-sighted and likely to cause trouble for them in the medium-term.
The most surprising result of the DSP manoeuvre, which was designed among other things to exacerbate conflicts in the ISO, is that it had the opposite effect, and forced the several currents in the ISO to come together to elaborate some of the differences the ISO has with the DSP on a number of questions, including some that have been prominent in the Marxmail discussion, particularly the united front and the continuing grip of Labor reformism in Australia.
In the initial debates on the DSP proposal in the Socialist Alliance, the sharpest critical note was struck by the Workers League, one of the smaller groups, but they were soon joined by the ISO, and after some internal discussion, all of the ISO factions recognised that the proposal was basically for a rebadged DSP functioning as the major force in the Socialist Alliance, rather than any actual dissolution of the DSP.
As the reality began to emerge that the DSP proposal was a declaration of intent to quickly impose a regroupment-fusion type arrangement on the other Alliance partners, the resistance to the proposal eventually spread to every other group in the Socialist Alliance.
The hardening of the ISO attitude was obviously influenced by the international discussion opened at the British SWP conference, which took the form of the British SWP leadership elaborating a different view of regroupment to that of the Scottish Socialist Party. The British SWP now makes a fairly substantial point (and in my view a correct one) about the continuing grip of labour movement reformism in English-speaking countries, which is completely different to the DSP-SSP-Phil Ferguson-CWI/Militant view that reformism is completely exposed and bankrupt and has little remaining influence over the working class.
Two weeks ago, a meeting was held at the Gaelic Club in Sydney to discuss the DSP proposal. It was attended by about 75 people, about 40 of them DSP and Resistance members (about half the DSP-Resistance membership, which underlined the importance with which the DSP viewed the meeting, as this was prime paper-selling time because of late-night shopping). There were about 15 ISO members (about a third of its membership in Sydney), two Socialist Alternative members, two Workers Liberty members, four Workers League members, no Greens, myself and another left ALP person, a couple of real independents and couple of independents who are really DSP sympathisers, as well as Sydney “Communist Left” personality Bill Keats.
Lisa Macdonald outlined the DSP’s proposal in an upbeat way, arguing that no reasonable person could disagree with a proposal that was so good for the left. Ian Rintoul from the ISO opposed it cautiously, pointing out the problems it posed for the ISO because of the element of ultimatum in it, and that the ISO had a different perception of the regroupment process to the unilateral, forced process implied in the DSP’s proposal.
Janet Bursall, from Workers Liberty at that stage gave the proposal critical endorsement and Phil Sandford opposed the proposal on similar lines to Ian Rintoul. The most interesting thing was the character of the discussion. The 10 or so ISO members who spoke expressed a variety of views. While, on balance, they didn’t like the DSP proposal at all, they expressed divergent views on prospects for the Socialist Alliance, and what came through from the ISO people was the beginnings, in their ranks, of a more serious discussion on the tactical questions in dispute between the ISO and the DSP.
I spelled out my proposals for regroupment, different from both the ISO and DSP and made a couple of jokes about the Marxmail discussion and mentioned Peter Boyle’s crack about having a captive audience on Marxmail, and I said that was a good thing, which even got a bit of a laugh from some of the DSP members, as well as from all the others.
The striking thing about the discussion was the implacable uniformity of the DSP speakers — about 15 of them. They showed no sign of the diversity of views that was evident among the ISO speakers. The three leaders who spoke: John Percy, Peter Boyle and Dick Nichols were extremely aggressive and confident, the argument being how could the ISO or the smaller groups smaller groups see anything wrong in the DSP’s proposal, that nothing would change, fears about the drive of the DSP for hegemony in the Alliance were figments of imagination in the heads of the ISO members and others, and how could anyone doubt the good intentions of the DSP, and anyway they were going to go ahead with their plan and the other groups would have to live with it.
John Percy baited the ISO members by quoting an Alex Callinicos article about regroupment, saying the DSP’s conception was the same as that of Callinicos.
This proved ironic later, when it became clear that misgivings had emerged among the British SWP leadership about the trajectory of the regroupment process in Scotland. These misgivings registered in the ISO discussion here.
Percy’s polemical tactic of using his interpretation of Callinicos’s view didn’t have much effect, because it emerged later that Callinicos’s view is probably quite different. In any case, it’s pretty cocky of John Percy to claim that he has some special insight into Alex Callinicos’s mind.
The 12 DSP rank and filers who spoke all had a uniformly activist, upbeat style, arguing strenuously that the DSP proposal was the philosopher’s stone to solve all the problems of regroupment and the Socialist Alliance. A woman from Newcastle let a cat out of the bag when she said if the DSP proposal went ahead, which it would, the Newcastle branch could bring 160 people to the Alliance conference next year. The 160, it emerges, is the number of electoral registrations in the Hunter Valley. But, of course, if the DSP proposal didn’t go ahead the number they would bring down would be far less. Non-DSP members present at the meeting were obviously wondering which of this woman’s alternative propositions was the more intimidating.
Peter Boyle’s contribution was extremely confident, and he clearly spelled out that the DSP had every intention of proceeding with its plan. Summing up at the end, Phil Sandford of the Workers League made the powerful point that what alarmed him most was the mechanical uniformity of the DSP contributions at the meeting, which underlined for him the strong possibility that the new-look Alliance would be one in which the rebadged DSP, with its homogeneous, top-down atmosphere and style, would be dominant.
I got a lift back to Newtown with a couple of ISO and Workers League comrades, and the slightly amused and amazed conversation in the car was all about the heroic homogeneity of the DSP contributions.
A couple of days later several recent DSP internal bulletins — the ones containing the three critical reports by Boyle, Nichols and Percy — leaked into the public domain of the left, in both Sydney and Melbourne and via email to other places. These three reports played a critical role in the subsequent discussion on the far left. In particular, Boyle’s report spelled out in graphic detail, obviously to convince doubters in DSP ranks, that in any transitional period after the dissolution of the DSP into the Socialist Alliance, up to the point that they achieved their political objective of the Alliance being an homogenous organisation with their politics, that the DS Tendency of the Alliance would be a rebadged DSP, with all the advantages of the DSP political machine and the useful public face of the Alliance.
These three reports circulated rapidly in interested circles on the left and the sharp contrast between the public posture of the DSP leadership — that nothing would change and the Socialist Alliance would remain an alliance — was in sharp conflict with the thrust of the DSP’s internal perspectives, which were all, as expressed by Boyle, about fighting strenuously to homogenise the Alliance around DSP politics.
Within a week or so of the circulation of these reports, the ISO as a whole decided solidly against the DSP proposals, as did all the smaller affiliates of the Alliance. This stage of the discussion was expressed fairly sharply in a lucid and comprehensive survey of the issues by Michael Schembri of Socialist Democracy (the USFI-oriented group in Australia), followed up by an open letter from John Tully of Socialist Democracy in fairly sharp terms calling on the DSP to draw back.
The rest is history. One small by-product of these developments is that after Steve and I put the contentious Boyle report up on the Ozleft website, the DSP seems to have decided to publish the Boyle, Percy and Nichols reports on the DSP website, which is a very healthy development for serious discussion of matters of this sort. Reasonably open, rather than internal, discussion of important questions is one of the issues in dispute between most other Marxists and the DSP.
At the end of the process, nobody in the Alliance except two or three loyal ex-members of the DSP, and no one among the Socialist groups outside the Alliance on the far left, supported the DSP initiative. Everyone on the far left outside the DSP could see that, given the history and character of the DSP, no one could reasonably expect the new-look Socialist Alliance to be anything but a formation in which a rebadged DSP would be the dominant force, fighting for hegemony, both short term and long-term, of all its tactical perspectives in the DSP style with which everyone on the left in Australia is familiar.
No significant change in the DSP’s top-down, ultra-centralist political culture, line and way of functioning is apparent to anyone else on the left in Australia. That’s the cold reality of the situation.
From this point of view, I find the recent contribution of Jose Perez on this question a bit difficult to understand.
It’s pretty clear from Boyle’s report that the DSP proposal — withdrawn for the moment — was for a rebadged DSP with all its Cannonist organisational characteristics. For instance, it may that there are disagreements within the DSP political committee, and have been for a while. There are some suggestions of such disagreement to an educated eye like mine.
If there weren’t such disagreement before, there may well be now, after the shipwreck of the DSP leadership’s initiative, on which they were so implacably set even two weeks ago.
But whatever these disagreements in the leadership may be, the DSP membership won’t be told about them until they’ve been resolved inside the leadership.
In parties like the DSP, with the Cannonist tradition that it inherited from the Zinovievist Comintern, internal political disagreements in the leadership are never aired with the membership unless one of the leaders is prepared to start a war for internal hegemony by forming a faction. And almost inevitably the forming of factions in a Cannonist organisation leads to a split. It certainly has every time there has been a faction in the DSP.
For this reason there is powerful pressure in the DSP leadership and membership against the formation of factions and tendencies. It’s this structural set-up and psychological atmosphere in the DSP that makes other groups on the far left, including the ISO and Socialist Alternative — which have a more relaxed Leninism that allows public factions — fearful of the DSP’s machine!
Jose Perez seems so infatuated with the DSP, from a distance, that he regards the attitude of all the other groups and individuals that don’t want to be gobbled up by the DSP carnivorous plant, as examples of sectarianism. But that’s not how it looks to the smaller left-wing political animals being eyed off by the DSP in Australia. They don’t want to be subsumed by the DSP.
They point to the many unresolved strategic and political questions between them and the DSP and they say a too-rapid regroupment without a serious discussion of these disagreements, with the aim of some resolution, or at least some increase in clarity on them, would be a recipe for almost immediate disaster, and would put socialist unity off the agenda for quite a long time. That is particularly the theme of John Tully and Socialist Democracy in their open letter to the DSP.
The ISO’s letter to the DSP points to a number of important differences, in particular the divergent strategic orientation of the two groups to the Australian labour movement, and they assert forcefully that no organic regroupment with the DSP is possible until such strategic questions are resolved.
Jose Perez’s letter from afar on these matters puzzles me, because it seems to skate lightly over the ultra-Cannonist intent of Boyle’s report, and implicitly chides all the other groups for sectarianism for not rolling over in the face of the DSP’s intentions. Why should they roll over? Perez underestimates the considerable impact of Boyle’s report on all the other groups and individuals in the Australian far left.
The net result of all this has been to open a wide-ranging political discussion on the far left in Australia on all questions relating to what kind of Marxist organisation is required. The DSP is the only group defending an ultra-Cannonist model. One interesting by-product of these developments is the way this series of events has tended to calm down the internal discussion inside the ISO, which is coming up to its national conference. The tone of the arguments in the ISO’s internal bulletin has become reasonably relaxed, despite the sharp political differences between some of the participants, and everyone in the ISO seems to have settled down to regarding the relatively wide-ranging discussion, spearheaded by individuals who are mostly in the leadership of the organisation, as normal.
Surely, from Perez’s point of view, in relation to Cannonism, it’s clear that the political climate in the ISO is far healthier than the still very homogeneous environment of the DSP? It will be very interesting to see if the shipwreck of the DSP’s organisational proposals for the Socialist Alliance brings to the surface the oppositional rumblings that clearly exist in the DSP on a number of questions.
The bloke from Melbourne, whose amendment to hasten slowly about the dissolution proposal got no votes except his own at the recent DSP National Committee meeting, has obviously been proved right by events, and it will be interesting to see what happens in the DSP now.
From my point of view, the whole history of these events poses sharply the kind of perspective for regroupment of the socialist left that I have been advocating for some years. In particular, it’s hard to see how any of the groups can resist the call for a serious, relaxed and reasonably lengthy discussion throughout the far left of the strategic questions in the labour movement that have formed the subject of some of the recent debates on Marxmail.
A few weeks ago, I encountered the regroupment proposals of the important US Marxist organisation, Solidarity. Three comrades from the controversial US ISO have visited Australia in recent months and have uniformly made such a good impression here that just about everyone on the far left spent some time trying to make friends with them.
When Caroline Lund was here at Easter she made some sweepingly dismissive statements about the current state of the US labour movement, which have been further developed in a lengthy article by her, Malik Miah and Barry Sheppard in the latest issue of Links.
The DSP’s proposals for the Socialist Alliance have produced a long and detailed overview of the Australian left on Marxmail, which in my view has been extremely useful.
For the information of comrades in Australia, could Jose, Louis or someone else give us a serious overview of the Marxist organisations in the US, their size and influence and their perspectives and politics, including an appraisal of proposals for regroupment, and some views and perspectives in relation to those organisations?
Could Richard Fidler do the same for the far left in Canada?
This is a genuine, not a loaded, question. I’m looking more for information rather than ammunition to justify some extravagant, and if one was to write it, necessarily eccentric, letter from afar on tasks for the left in North America.