Bob Gould, 2004
Source: Ozleft, January 3-18, 2004
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter
Australia’s First Socialists. Resistance Books, Sydney, 2003
This little 55-page pamphlet is nicely designed and produced by the friendly radical book printer across the road from my shop, who prints all the books for the DSP, and I imagine gives them a pretty reasonable price. He has developed into a very tasteful book printer.
This pamphlet is part of the DSP’s energetic publishing program, which I like because it makes many useful, if sometimes slightly exotic, works available to the Australian radical public at sensible prices. A socialist publisher bold enough to produce a comprehensive collection of US Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon’s writing as well as the full text of Cannon’s Struggle for a Proletarian Party for an Australian audience has to be applauded, even if you disagree a bit with some of the political intention of the production, and even if you discount the Doug Lorimer introductions for their sometimes mistaken politics.
My information is that these books and pamphlets are produced in sensible print runs of between 800 and 1500. Taken as a whole, it’s a bold publishing venture and I try to keep a range of these books and pamphlets available in my shop. It’s a kind of agitational socialist publishing that no one else does much any more, at least not in Australia, and the fact that the DSP engages seriously in this kind of socialist publishing softens my attitude to them a bit.
I try, as part of a personal project of keeping labour movement and socialist literature available in Australia, to keep a very wide range of socialist material, labour history, Marxism, etc, often obtained as publishers’ remainders or secondhand, and the DSP’s publishing activity is a useful supplement to the range in my shop.
I’m also in the position that I know the author of the new pamphlet, Jim McIlroy, a bit, and I rather like him personally. I don’t particularly relish the political necessity of criticising his scholarship and the political thrust of his pamphlet.
The content of pamphlet, like its predecessor, The Red North, exemplifies many of the weaknesses of the DSP leadership’s approach to the history of the Australian workers movement.
Jim McIlroy is the only person in the DSP leadership who writes on Australian labour history these days, so he’s the one I have to argue with in this context.
McIlroy is extremely skimpy and selective in his use of sources. He only refers to a smallish number of books: ones that can be used to fit the DSP’s narrative about socialists and the Australian labour movement, and he avoids a large number of others that complicate this retrospective DSP leadership schema.
No Karl Marx “history is whole cloth” for the DSP leadership, intellectually speaking.
As a consequence of this narrowness of sources, McIlroy does not even attempt to provide a bibliography at the end of the pamphlet, as such a short bibliography would only underline the narrowness of his research.
The pamphlet is ostensibly about the early socialists in Australia, but it’s really a fairly thinly disguised polemic in favour of the idea of socialists taking an ultraleft attitude to the mass labour movement, particularly the Labor Party, and criticising those in the past who didn’t do this, which is why McIlroy leans heavily on the work of Verity Burgmann, who has a similar standpoint.
There is no hint in McIlroy’s pamphlet of past controversies about approaches to Australian socialist and labour movement history, particularly the well-known and important controversy between, on the one hand the DSP’s new ally, Humphrey McQueen, and on the other the older generation of socialist and labour historians, Russell Ward, Ian Turner and Robin Gollan.
It’s peculiar that there’s no reference to Humphrey McQueen’s rather important book, A New Britannia, which was at the centre of this controversy, despite the fact that A New Britannia obviously informs McIlroy’s approach.
The beginnings and development of the Australian socialist movement, small country though Australia was, has been widely written about. In the 1960s Henry Mayer wrote a book, published by F.W. Cheshire, the title of which tells the early story: Marx, Engels and Australia.
The ethos of the early socialist movement is captured extremely well in three relatively recent books: A New Australia by Bruce Scates (Cambridge, 1997), The People’s Party by Frank Bongiorno (Melbourne University Press 1996) and John Curtin by David Day (William Collins 2000). The book of letters from Curtin to his wife is also of interest in this context, along with Lloyd Ross’s biography of Curtin.
There have been a number of memoirs or biographies of people who participated in the socialist movement that also flesh out the picture. I Remember and The Great Bust by J.T. Lang, H.V. Evatt’s biography of NSW Premier William Holman, Billy Hughes’ memoir Crusts and Crusades and Peter Coleman’s book about Adela Pankhurst and Tom Walsh, The Wayward Suffragette (MUP 1996).
Other relevant biographies and memoirs include: These Things Shall Be, Edgar Ross’s biography of his father, Bob Ross (Mullavan Publishing, 1988); Dawn to Dusk, Reminiscence of a Rebel, by Ernie Lane, William Lane’s long-lived socialist brother, first published in 1939 and reprinted by Shape (Brisbane, 1993), and Frank Farrell’s important biography, Harry Holland, Militant Socialist (P.J. O’Farrell, ANU Press, 1964).
Two other useful books are Doherty’s Corner, Colleen Burke’s biography of the Victorian poet, Marie Pitt, a member of the Victorian Socialist Party, and the chapter by Graeme Osborne on the Victorian Socialist Party and racism in the book, Who Are Our Enemies?
As it happens, I have almost all these books either secondhand or as publishers’ remainders at reasonable prices in my bookshop.
What emerges clearly from this substantial literature is that there was from the 1880s onwards a diverse socialist movement in Australia, quite large relative to the size of the country, and that it seriously got going in the 1890s.
From its inception, it was, as it could only be, a complex and many-stranded kind of movement. There were some Marxist and syndicalist influences from early on, but there were also many other influences and currents that can reasonably be described as socialist. The most striking aspect was the mutual interaction between all the currents and influences.
There were often sharp conflicts, but there was also a certain all-inclusive socialist aspect to this movement, a bit like the atmosphere that James P. Cannon describes with nostalgia in his pamphlet on the Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs in the United States.
McIlroy’s summary, judgmental, retrospective criticism of the early socialists is ahistorical. How could these early socialists have developed a more modern “Leninist” approach at this early stage? Rather than this crude drawing of “lessons” it would have been more useful to try to recapture the vitality and dynamism of this early movement, warts and all, with all its contradictions. This is what the books by Paul Bongiorno, Bruce Scates and David Day do, and what makes those books useful and important.
They give some idea of the dynamic character of the early Australian socialist movement, bound though it was by the circumstances of the time.
Lenin, Trotsky and James P. Cannon did not feel obliged to continuously draw crude “lessons” about the defects of earlier socialists. One has only to read Trotsky’s political profiles of the figures in the European socialist movement to see this.
McIlroy would be doing something more useful if he, say, used his time providing the book list at the back of Ernie Lane’s “From Dawn to Dusk”, which provides a flavour of this early movement. (Ernie Lane’s book list has a surprising number of titles in common with James P. Cannon’s ideal socialist book list, which Cannon reels off in one of his letters from prison.)
The whole spirit of Lenin and Trotsky was to build on the past, sharply demarcating the new Marxist currents from the defects of the past, but not imagining that it was any use judging the activities of past socialists from the standpoint of the present.
Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky all, at different times, made the general observation about history being a spiral, and that modern socialists stood on the backs of previous ideological developments of humankind and civilization, negating some parts and incorporating others.
Lenin spent a large part of the years from 1913-1916 studying philosophy: all the traditional philosophers, and especially Hegel, although like Marx he “stood Hegel on his head”, he spent a large part of his time in a very careful study of Hegel, as a rather reverent student of a very great teacher, as is shown by even a cursory study of Volume 38 of Lenin’s Collected Works, Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks.
The great revolutionary Marxists of the modern period, Lenin and Trotsky, stood in an altogether more careful and knowledgeable relationship to the development of the previous socialist movement than the DSP leadership’s ideological narrative suggests.
They didn’t make an absurd ticks and crosses balance sheet, as Jim McIlroy and the other DSP leaders seem to want to do.
Lenin and Trotsky drew broad political lessons from the contradictions, weakenesses and inadequacies of previous attempts at socialist organisation, but they nowhere said or implied that socialists could have developed a modern socialist project outside space and time.
They had thoroughly assimilated Marx’s general idea that humanity makes its own history, not in circumstances of its own choosing, but in the circumstances with which we are presented by previous historical developments. One has only to read Engels’ book The Peasant Wars in Germany to absorb this general point.
At one point, McIlroy says, about the IWW:
“Let’s imagine the Wobblies did survive in World War I and re-emerge into the open later. The Communist Party was in formation at that time, and came to play the key role in Australian radical politics for the next 50 years, but inherited a whole number of weaknesses. They weren’t as sharp as the IWW on racism, on the Labor Party, even on war. How many more workers would have been educated about what socialism really is, and could become, if there were some good debates between the IWW and the CP, hopefully leading to unification and the formation of a much stronger revolutionary organisation?”
Leaving aside the point, which I’ll deal with later, that a lot of the things McIlroy says here aren’t quite accurate, this methodology is completely un-Marxist. It deserves to be described as the DSP leadership science fiction, alternative worlds school of “Marxist historiography”.
The sci-fi alternative worlds approach is a hopelessly metaphysical way to educate socialists. Its worst feature is that it accentuates a mad bootstrap-lifting kind of idealism in politics: the notion that anything can be achieved by willpower and that a sober appraisals of material circumstances and possibilities is not central to developing a perspective.
There is in labour movement politics and history a kind of parallel Social Democratic sci-fi alternative worlds approach. At a labour history gathering several years ago, Graham Freudenberg developed at considerable length the thesis that the great Labor split in 1916 over conscription was a kind of accidental aberration, and that the split with the Groupers in 1956 was also an accidental aberration. He expanded on his view that the radicalisations of the labour movement from the 1920s to the 1940s and from the 1950s to the 1970s would not have taken place if it hadn’t been for these accidental, aberrant, splits.
Freudenberg’s right-wing Social Democratic alternative universe and the DSP leadership’s alternative universe are mirror images of each other, and both alternative universes have little to do with Marxism.
James P. Cannon, in his correspondence with Theodore Draper, reprinted in The First Ten Years of American Communism, said, in a very well-known comment:
“Iris Kipnis’ book The American Socialist Movement 1897-1912, published in 1952, gives some interesting information about the evolution of the Socialist Party up to 1912. I assume you are familiar with it … From what I have read I am inclined to be a bit suspicious of Kipnis’ objectivity. There are some telltale expressions in the Stalinist lingo which should put one on guard. His book is overstuffed with references. They may all be accurate, but as you know, a history can be slanted by a selectivity of sources, as well as outright falsification.
“In skimming through the book for the first time I was torn between my own unconcealed partisanship for the left wing, and my concern for the whole truth in historical writing.”
Jim McIlroy’s central interest throughout this pamphlet is clearly the Labor Party question, but he gives no serious, amplified discussion of the contradictions and complexities in the evolution of this issue among early socialists.
A very large number of active socialists tried to influence the mass Labor Party from very early on. Sometimes they became disillusioned, broke away and tried other tactics. One very determined breakaway was led by Harry Holland, which persisted for a number of years running electoral candidates against the Laborites in anger at betrayals by Labor parliamentarians.
These breakaways didn’t succeed electorally, and many of those who tried the independent socialist electoral tactic drifted back into the Labor Party, often still in an oppositional and socialist way. Harry Holland, the sharpest critic of official Laborism at the turn of the 20th century, as leader of the Socialist Labour Party, subsequently moved to New Zealand and became one of the founders of the New Zealand Labour Party, and its first parliamentary leader, while at the same time defending the Russian Revolution.
The movements backwards and forwards about socialist tactics towards the Labor Party were quite complex, and usually driven by events and circumstances, rather than purely theoretical considerations.
Even a brief mention of the literature, such as the one above, underlines the limited nature of Jim McIlroy’s account of the Australian socialist movement. He’s only really interested in what he perceives to be the need to break with and expose Laborism, but the actual texture of the movement raised these questions in a much more complex way than McIlroy describes.
The largest part of McIlroy’s pamphlet — about half of it — is a bit of a panegyric to the IWW, based on Verity Burgmann’s useful, but rather dry, book, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism: The IWW in Australia (Cambridge University Press, 1995). McIlroy neglects to recognise or even mention Ian Turner’s lively and extremely important book about the IWW, Sydney’s Burning which, based on a great deal of original research, presented the IWW warts, contradictions, and all.
Verity Burgmann’s approach is almost uncritical support for all aspects of the IWW’s boisterous and courageous anarcho-syndicalism. She doesn’t provide much flavour of the contradictions and complexities facing militant trade unionists influenced by anarcho-syndicalism in their trade union activities.
Two articles available on Ozleft, by Peter Sheldon, (Job Control for Workers Health, the 1908 Sydney Rockchoppers’ Strike and In division is strength: unionism among Sydney labourers, 189O-191O) supplement, and to some extent contradict, Burgmann’s overview.
McIlroy slides over the fact that some of the framed-up IWW prisoners probably did engage in arson. The evidence in the case for this is soberly considered in Turner’s very careful book, particularly the second paperback edition, and Turner concludes that the main IWW leaders were innocent of the charges and that even those who were possibly “guilty” were loaded up by the police, who had little real evidence and whose main intention was to frame the IWW leaders, which they did fairly thoroughly and to the best of their ability, although the frame-up was difficult, as such projects usually are.
McIlroy also ignores Frank Cain’s useful book about the suppression of the IWW by the bourgeois state, The Wobblies at War: A History of the IWW and the Great War in Australia (Spectrum Publications, 1993).
Again, McIlroy doesn’t even mention the existence of the book, A Short History of the Australian Labour Movement, by E.W. Campbell (Current Books, 1943), which was the Communist Party take on the history of the Australian workers movement, including a detailed appraisal of the IWW.
McIlroy’s approach to the IWW is hyped up, and he even says the IWW attitude to the Laborites was more correct than that of other socialists and later the CPA, and he creates a sort of fantasy about how, if the IWW hadn’t collapsed, it could have argued with the new CPA from the left. (In the extract I quoted earlier, McIlroy relies very heavily on Burgmann’s version for this view, but E.W. Campbell’s account of the events is, in my view, much more accurate.) What a curious piece of retrospective metaphysics is this little pen picture. In fact, the IWW did persist a bit and did argue with the CP, without much effect.
The Socialist Labour Party in South Australia, which also had a syndicalist view, continued all through the 1920s, until its main personalities, including Gil Roper, folded it up and joined the CPA.
Jim McIlroy’s account of the mass upsurge against conscription in World War I is slightly dishonest. He pictures the conflict over conscription almost as one between Laborism and the IWW, which is extremely ahistorical. The conflict over conscription, as everybody knows, culminated in a convulsive split in 1916 in the official labour movement.
Conscription was defeated not primarily by the IWW, which was the extreme left wing of a very large popular movement.
The IWW’s energising role was extremely important, but so was the visceral hostility of Irish-Australian Catholics to conscription, which was sharpened by the brutal suppression of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland and the execution of its leaders. This event propelled Archbishop Daniel Mannix into the anti-conscription battle in a big way. What tipped the scales against conscription was the split in the Labor Party and the presence of the big battalions of the unions and the labour movement in the anti-conscription camp.
Conscription might not have been defeated without the agitational role of the IWW, but its defeat was clearly impossible without the mobilisation of the mass official labour movement and the expulsion of the right-wing led by Hughes, Holman and others from the Labor Party.
Jim McIlroy’s version of the anti-conscription struggle is cockeyed and eccentric. He chops off the evidence at both ends to turn a struggle that was the classic example of a decisive split in the official labour movement, with the expulsion of the right wing, into a struggle in which the left of the movement, the IWW, was the only decisive element. Very strange history.
This approach may make the cadres of small socialist groups feel good when reading about those events in McIlroy’s pamphlet, but the real lesson that they won’t find here is that great things are actually achieved when the radical vanguard, in this case the IWW, interacts with and energises the broader mass labour movement, as it did over conscription. Socialist groups don’t amount to much unless they have influence in broader proletarian mass movements.
One aspect of the struggle to defend the framed-up IWW prisoners that flows from McIlroy’s eccentric emphasis on the IWW alone is his neglect of the labour-movement-wide agitation for their release. Most people in the workers movement were aware that some fringe elements of the IWW were probably involved in incendiarism, but it was equally clear that the IWW leaders had been framed up by the bourgeois state, and it’s to the undying credit of a very broad section of the official labour movement that they rallied energetically in support of the release of the IWW prisoners.
Viewed in a balanced way, historically, the release of the IWW prisoners was a tribute to a labour-movement-wide campaign for their release, which included the trade union ranks, many trade union leaders, many of the ranks of the Labor Party and quite a few Labor politicians.
The two people who figured most in the campaign for the release of the prisoners were Ernie Judd, the leader of the Socialist Labour Party, a factional opponent of the IWW, and Henry Boote, the well-entrenched Laborite socialist and editor of the Australian Workers Union weekly newspaper, The Worker. These two men were the heart and soul of the agitation for the release of the IWW prisoners.
They conducted the release campaign for more than four years, and were extraordinarily energetic and ingenious in exposing the frame-up. This is all described at length in Sydney’s Burning.
Jim McIlroy doesn’t even mention the dramatic events associated with the agitation for the Ewing Royal Commission required to release the IWW prisoners, which eventually resulted in their release. This is obviously because describing these events undermines the broad nature of the agitation in the labour movement.
In a hotly contested election in 1920, under a system of proportional representation the NSW parliament was evenly split between the Conservatives and Labor, and the balance of power was held by an independent socialist from Broken Hill, Percy Brookfield, who set as the price of his support for the Labor government that Storey, the Labor premier, had to find a Royal Commissioner who would release the prisoners.
There was no appropriate pro-Labor judge available in NSW, as Jack Lang describes, in his memoir, I Remember. A pro-Labor judge, Justice Ewing, was available in Tasmania, but the conservative Tasmanian government wouldn’t release him.
However, during the post-World-War-I economic crisis there was a nationwide shortage of cement. Storey made a deal with the Tasmanian Tories to supply several shiploads of NSW cement in return for Justice Ewing. The Royal Commission was held, and the prisoners were released.
Gil Roper, the one-time Socialist Labour Party leader in South Australia, subsequently a CPA leader, later a Trotskyist and later a Labor Party representative on Sydney City Council, wrote a well-researched small biography of Percy Brookfield, the courageous socialist from Broken Hill, who played the critical role in these events. The book is Labor’s Titan, which I also have in my shop (along with Sydney’s Burning).
Brookfield was killed in the prime of life while trying to talk down a madman with a gun at Silverton railway station in South Australia in 1921.
I have, in addition to my political objections to the DSP leadership’s ahistorical approach to the IWW, a kind of aesthetic and literary objection. The struggle of the IWW is one of the most interesting and colourful high points of the class struggle in Australia. It took place, however, in a certain historical context.
I’ve actually written two 500-word film pitches about those events and the anti-conscription struggle, which I put into a film pitching competition a couple of years ago. Removing from this story of the Australian class struggle the contradictions that don’t focus on the DSP obsession with exposing Laborism, deprives it of lot of its punch.
McIlroy’s handling of the foundation of the Communist Party is entirely written from the point of view of trying to use history to justify the DSP leadership’s current electoral focus on exposing Laborism.
It avoids the question that the strategic approach of the early Australian Communists to Laborism was produced by both domestic and overseas influences.
The overseas influence was the direct tutelage of the Communist International to persuade the early Communists to adopt a united front towards Laborism and to campaign for affiliation to the Labor Party. The domestic context was a very considerable shift to the left in the official labour movement as part of the general shift to the left in society after the Russian Revolution, which was expressed at quite a high point politically in the federal Labor Party conferences’ adoption of the Socialist Objective.
The impact of the split over conscription, the revolutionary events in Ireland, and the Russian Revolution, had all combined to push the Australian labour movement, including its official parliamentary and trade union expressions, dramatically to the left.
The NSW leftists and socialists had a negative experience to draw on. In 1920, after losing by one vote at an ALP conference, the left walked out of the Labor Party in NSW with the support of the Labour Council and the left unions, and set up a Socialist Labor Party. This party did very badly in the subsequent state elections. It only managed to elect one MP, Percy Brookfield from Broken Hill, and that was because of Brookfield’s enormous local popularity in a rather parochial community that had recently experienced a number of bitter industrial struggles, in which Brookfield had taken the lead.
The left in the NSW labour movement was fairly quick to draw firm conclusions from the unsuccessful results of this premature split, and they were therefore in a favourable frame of mind to accept the prodding of the Comintern to adopt a united front strategy towards Laborism. This strategy wasn’t some sort of aberration. It had both international and domestic origins.
Revolutionary politics involves, in large part, perspectives. It’s vitally important to be able to discern ebbs from flows to elaborate perspectives. Even a cursory reading of the interventions of Lenin and Trotsky at several Comintern congresses underlines this.
When forcefully arguing for the united front policy in the labour movement in a number of countries, Lenin and Trotsky stressed that the revolutionary floodtide associated with the Russian Revolution had already begun to ebb by the early 1920s and that dictated the importance of a united front strategy.
The early Australian communists were pretty sensibly taking note of this in the early 1920s and the IWW’s syndicalist hostility to Laborism was clearly a bit out of space and time in the early 1920s.
This underlines how metaphysical McIlroy’s sci-fi alternative reality about the IWW is. The decisive removal of the right wing from the labour movement in the conscription split laid the basis for a radical mood in the movement, which persisted into the 1920s and 1930s, but this was undermined by the relative economic stability of the early and mid 1920s.
(I’ve just read the extraordinary perspectives document adopted by the DSP at its recent congress, the core of which is a fantastic misreading of the current political environment in Australia, and I can see from this strange perspectives document how the political climate in the DSP at the moment easily leads Jim McIlroy to neglect the ebb of the 1920s in his analysis. After all, the 1920s is a long time ago, so talking extravagantly about that time is a good deal easier than putting forward a fantasised view of current reality.)
To sum up, McIlroy can only sustain his sectarian lessons from the early history of the socialist movement in Australia by a very selective reading of the history.
To try to correct this selective reading, and to illuminate this discussion we’re incluing as appendixes two extracts from Sydney’s Burning, by Ian Turner, and the second edition introduction to Industrial Labour and Politics, which covers the dispute over historical method between Turner, Gollan and Ward on the one hand and McQueen on the other.
A third appendix is some relevant extracts from E.W. Campbell’s History of the Australian Labour Movement, relating to Communists and the Labor Party in the 1920s. E.W. Campbell was a working-class autodidact who drank a bit, but who became the CPA’s main labour historian after the departure of J.N. Rawling in 1940.
Campbell was a convinced Stalinist, but a pretty good labour historian despite that. He later wrote a book that was a best-seller in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s: The Sixty Families Who Own Australia.
Eric Fry interviewed Tom Barker about these events in 1965, and the transcript was published as a booklet that is still available from secondhand bookshops (Tom Barker and the IWW, E.C. Fry).
For the DSP leadership’s benefit, it’s worth noting that in 1965, when Fry interviewed Tom Barker, the former editor of Direct Action, the struggle for whose freedom helped to spark the upheaval in 1916, Barker was by then a British Labour Party councillor in a London borough. Such are the complex twists and turns in the workers movement.
January 6, 2004
The only aspect of my critique of Jim McIlroy’s pamphlet that seems to interest Phil Ferguson is racism in the early labour movement in Australia, and he springs to defence of Verity Burgmann’s view with a kind of appeal to authority about how “respected” an academic Verity is.
Well, her co-thinker on these matters, Humphrey McQueen, was never an academic, god bless him, and some of the authorities that are important to me were academics, but in my view academic status does not loom as large as it seems to in Phil’s. What matters is the content, the politics and the historiography of the arguments.
Peter Boyle is excited by Phil’s defence of Burgmann, and posts it on the Green Left list. Boyle doesn’t try to engage, at this stage, with my arguments. Ferguson’s appeal to Burgmann’s authority is good enough for Boyle.
Tom O’Lincoln at least brings a bit of light into the discussion, and he usefully locates Burgmann’s thesis by pointing out that the core of it is in Who Are Our Enemies, and he posts links to other useful references.
Tom can’t quite bring himself to refer to my several pieces on the issue, perhaps because of his deep disagreement with my “Australian nationalism”, but nevertheless his references are all relevant.
The central question in this exchange, which may still not be quite clear, is that most of the articles by academics in the ISO tradition, in Class Struggle and Australian History, and the two articles by Gregson and Small that Tom points to, are carefully argued pieces against the Burgmann-McQueen thesis that the white racism of the 19th century emanated primarily from the labour movement.
In that sense they are in general agreement with the older labour historians, who however, as has been pointed out, initially neglected the issue of racism a bit.
The other issue in dispute between, on the one hand, the older labour historians and the younger academics in the IS tradition, and on the other hand, McQueen, Burgmann and Iggy Kim of Green Left Weekly, who wrote a pamphlet on the topic, is whether the formation of the Labor Party represented a substantial step forward for the working class despite the racism endemic in the early labour movement, or whether the endemic racism made the modern labour movement essentially stillborn.
My dispute with Jim McIlroy, Iggy Kim and the DSP leadership is that, in their summary journalism on these matters they try to develop their labour-movement-stillborn thesis by a selective use of sources, something I try to correct with my citations.
These are big historical questions in the workers movement and I have discussed them carefully and at considerable length, with many useful citations to the literature, in the following articles:
Mass Migration has Been Good for Australia and it Should Continue
Multiculturalism and Australian National Identity
Over the Hills Lies China: A Response to Paul Sheehan’s Amongst the Barbarians
Stuart McIntyre’s The Reds: A Review
The ALP, the labour movement and racism
The Communist Party in Australian Life
Interrogating Miriam Dixson: A Letter to an Old Comrade
Race, nationality and religion in Australia: The Irish Catholics and the Labour Movement
The Red North and the DSP book of parables
The People’s Choice: Electoral Politics in 20th Century NSW. A Review
All these articles have some bearing on the issues in dispute.
January 15, 2004
Peter Boyle seems incapable of discussing anything without slight falsifications, the aim of which are to heat up the atmosphere and give him the opportunity for strutting his bellicose leadership stuff.
In his critique of Australia’s First Socialists Gould did not say anything resembling this vintage piece of Boyleism: “Gould has rudely suggested that A New Britannia has become ‘a bible’ for DSP members.”
What I did say was:
“There is no hint in McIlroy’s pamphlet of past controversies about approaches to Australian socialist and labour movement history, particularly the well-known and important controversy between, on the one hand the DSP’s new ally, Humphrey McQueen, and on the other the older generation of socialist and labour historians, Russell Ward, Ian Turner and Robin Gollan.
“It’s peculiar that there’s no reference to Humphrey McQueen’s rather important book, A New Britannia, which was at the centre of this controversy, despite the fact that it obviously informs McIlroy’s approach.”
Boyle seems to have an infinite talent for falsification and crudification. He seems to do it almost in his sleep, and he doesn’t seem to care or even notice that he’s doing it.
Boyle then attempts to rectify the problem of the implicit, but unacknowledged, presence of the original edition of A New Britannia permeating Jim McIlroy’s pamphlet, by reeling off a large chunk of Humphrey McQueen’s very careful afterword to the revised edition of A New Britannia, in which Humphrey explicitly relinquishes a lot of the method of the first edition.
This is a bit beside the point, because Jim McIlroy’s pamphlet is obviously profoundly influenced by the method of the first edition of A New Britannia, which Humphrey now himself subjects to a critical balance sheet.
However, even in trying to use McQueen instrumentally to justify the DSP leadership’s anti-Labor obsession, Boyle carefully selects some extracts to avoid the important part of McQueen’s very intelligent revision of his position, in which Humphrey puts into historical context the racism that was omnipresent at the time of the formation of the Labor Party. Boyle and the DSP leadership are these days only interested in labour movement history instrumentally, insofar as snippets of labour history can be used to justify their current obsession with the supposedly unalloyed, reactionary character of Laborism from the very moment of its birth.
“Socialists need to seriously study Australian Labor history, and the development of the Socialist Alliance offers many openings to deepen such study and extend debate about it. For instance, Socialist Alliance can and should organise regular conferences and seminars that involve labour historians and activists in such discussions. The soon to be launched magazine Seeing Red is another forum. As I argued in an earlier post, there is a big gap SA can fill here that neither the ALP left nor the Greens can fill at the moment.”
This piece of Boylism is particularly Socialist Alliance egocentric and deceptive. The facts are that in the past 15 years or so the DSP’s coverage of, or reference to, labour movement history, or Australian social history, has been exceedingly skimpy.
A non-member of the DSP, Phil Shannon, has written a number of book reviews in Green Left Weekly on labour movement questions, and Iggy Kim has written a very instrumental pamphlet, The Origins of Racism, attacking multiculturalism and inferring that the Labor Party was the main source of racism in Australian society.
There has been very little other Australian labour history in Green Left Weekly over a period of about 15 years. The current argument over Aboriginal history precipitated by Windschuttle’s right-wing revisionism has raged for three years. Many socialists, such as myself, Ray Evans and many others have published a lot of material on this question, along with various liberals such as Robert Manne. The DSP leadership has shown little interest in this important historical debate, which has been long-lived and very widespread in Australian society.
There are Labour History societies in a number of states, and the national journal, Labour History, has national labour history conferences every second year, and produces a substantial 150-page journal twice a year. There are about eight younger labour historians in the ISO tradition in Australia, and they have participated in many of these conferences, and they publish quite frequently in Labour History on a number of questions.
I publish a fair bit on labour history and have presented a number of papers to conferences and Labour History meetings, and a lot of that material is publicly available on Ozleft. The DSP, which is quite a large organisation, relatively speaking, and has historically recruited mainly among students, has no younger labour historians, and indeed has very few members working in any sphere of the social sciences in universities. One former member has published a couple of times in Labour History, and Jim McIlroy has published his two pamphlets, and that’s about the extent of it.
Green Left Weekly rarely publicises Labour History Society events. I’ve been involved in organising a number of Labour History events in Sydney: the conference on multiculturalism and mass migration a couple of years ago, and the conference in 2002 on the 1960s, both very successful events, as have been a number of other Labour History conferences and meetings, like the very successful Sydney Labour History one-day seminar on the 1998 waterfront dispute, and the well-attended seminar on Hungary, 1956 and the CPA. The DSP leadership showed no interest whatever in these events.
The conference on the 1960s is an excellent example. I made sure that John Percy was invited to speak on the panel on the Vietnam antiwar movement. He spoke all right, but not one other member or supporter of the DSP attended that conference, which was attended by nearly 100 people, many of whom had been participants in the turbulent activities of the 1960s. Over the past few years the DSP’s interest in labour history has been totally instrumentalist and physically extremely sectarian, in the sense that they just don’t go to any of these events.
Even the way that Boyle pretentiously poses the question is a dead giveaway as to his approach. The Socialist Alliance and its magazine can in the future act as a focus, etc.
The problem with this DSP-Socialist Alliance Third Periodism is that working class history is a common heritage to all in the workers’ movement and if the Socialist Alliance alone is the body that organises seminars no one is likely to attend except Socialist Alliance adherents and the odd argumentative critic such as myself.
If would be far better for the DSP to initiate labour-movement-wide seminars and events or, better, to participate in such events organised by broader bodies, such as the Labour History Society. Narrowly Socialist Alliance events on labour history are unlikely to happen on any significant scale, despite Peter Boyle’s pretentious rhetoric.
Boyle’s approach to the content of the discussion between Humphrey McQueen and the previous generation of labour historians is equally narrow and instrumentalist and actually has quite a lot in common with the approach of Stuart MacIntyre, who is on the right of the labour history continuum. What Boyle has in common with MacIntyre is the tendency to ignore or play down past popular insurgencies in Australian history associated with Laborism. See Dumbing Down Australian History and Its Teaching.
The best effect of the past arguments was that they produced a substantial rectification by Russell Ward, Ian Turner, and Humphrey McQueen of some of the defects of their early work. Ward’s mature work, his Short History of Australia, ended up being the best summary of Australian history so far, from a socialist and working class point of view.
Ward’s Short History and McQueens’ afterword to A New Britannia are both healthy products of past debates. It’s only possible to comprehend Australian working class history if you approach it in an objective spirit.
The body of historical material on Ozleft will increase, and we hope to contribute to a serious discussion on the rich history of the Australian workers’ movement.
January 17, 2004
I seem to have inadvertently stirred up several hornets’ nests at once. I don’t want anyone to lose sight of my initial major point in criticising Jim McIlroy’s pamphlet, which is that the DSP leadership uses labour history in a very narrow, instrumental, retrospective way to attempt to ram home several simple, crudified political points.
In the course of this didactic exercise, the DSP leadership narrows the real history of the Australian workers’ movement and of the historiography about it, and of past debates about this working class historiography.
Peter Boyle’s primitive response, in particular, just underlines this basic point, and no one so far from the DSP leadership has tried seriously to challenge me on this question. I wish they would, so we could seriously discuss the issues involved.
The trivial attempts to demonstrate the DSP leadership’s interest in labour history verge on the ridiculous. Since the turn away from the labour movement and the associated turn away from labour history, in about 1986, there have been nearly 1000 issues of Direct Action and then Green Left Weekly, a well-edited and in some ways lively weekly paper.
As the attempted defenders of the DSP leadership have themselves demonstrated, the amount of coverage of labour history in those 1000-odd issues has been derisory.
Boyle ridicules my “toppling shelves bookshop” and accuses me of advertising books. Well, I do that, quite a bit, and that’s no crime, particularly when they’re the labour movement history books that I’ve been talking about in this discussion. For many years, as part of my bookselling activities I’ve concentrated rather energetically on building up a unique collection of about 30,000 books on Marxism, Russian history, Trotskyism, anarchism, the Australian labour movement, Irish and Latin American history, women’s studies and other matters relevant to the workers’ movement.
I take pleasure and pride in the fact that this unique collection is available to the radical public at reasonable prices. The shelves certainly sag a bit, but the political function is obvious, and generation after generation of rebels have acquired a fair bit of their education from this collection. (More than 1000 of the leftists books from this collection are now catalogued on the web and we are we are adding to this list all the time.)
The problem, from Peter Boyle’s point of view, of course, is that the literature of the workers’ movement is far wider than Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Castro and James P. Cannon, although these important revolutionaries are well represented on my shelves.
At some moments of heightened political tension the leaders of different Marxist groups with which I’m arguing, particularly the DSP, obviously try to discourage their members from browsing in my shop, but this always breaks down over time and, in particular, the young and rebellious are impossible to keep away from my collection.
One of the things that is pretty noticeable to me from my bookselling activities is that most of the leaders of the Marxist groups in Sydney are no longer particularly interested in looking at socialist books or browsing through leftist material.
Maybe they use the internet a bit, but it’s my impression that the leaderships have mostly settled into a routinist intellectual rut, getting by with a few texts from the past (mostly texts endorsing the prerogatives of leaderships) and a cursory surfing of the bourgeois press.
One of the things that, in my view, totally undermines the capacity of these “leaderships” to lead anything except small sects is the dreary routine existence into which these leaderships seem to have settled. Lenin, Trotsky, and Jim Cannon for that matter, weren’t like that at all. (By way of contrast, the people who systematically work their way through my extensive collection of revolutionary literature tend to be the youth, students, oppositionists and rebels, and there are a very large number of them. This circumstance seems to me appropriate to the political purpose with which I’ve constructed the collection. Knowledge expands the mind, and an extensive study of the literature of the workers’ movement helps equip people for effective socialist activity.)
On my shelves are something of the order of 3000 titles on the history of the Australian labour, Communist, socialist and progressive movements. About 1000 of these books, on all sorts of aspects of the labour movement, the trade unions, working-class political parties, labour movement sociology, etc, have been published in the 19 years since the DSP’s turn away from the labour movement.
Jon Strauss, if he likes, can turn his search engine to finding how many of these books on labour movement questions have been reviewed, discussed or argued with in Direct Action or Green Left Weekly. He’ll find very little with his search engine.
Green Left has some good features, but serious coverage of Australian labour movement history and literature is not one of them.
Peter Boyle asserts that insofar as there may be a weakness in this area, which he of course doesn’t concede, the DSP will do better in the future, through the Socialist Alliance (without prejudice to the DSP leadership’s insistence that they’ve done well in the past anyway!).
I put it to Peter Boyle and the DSP leadership that they would be well-advised to try to set up some seminars and discussions on labour movement history in collaboration with all the other forces in the labour and progressive movements.
Something set up for serious discussion on that basis might succeed, and might even bring some clarity. Narrowly DSP or Socialist Alliance events on labour history are unlikely to succeed, and they are certainly unlikely to produce much clarity.
My associate, Ed Lewis, has obviously prodded a very big hornets’ nest by referring to Jim Cannon’s well-known and rather unashamed exaggerated hostility to “petit-bourgeois intellectuals”.
I have immense respect for Cannon as a revolutionary agitator and leader. James P. Cannon was one of my first literary mentors. I believe that the summing up of Cannon by Tim Wohlforth, in the book that Gerry Healy suppressed, The Struggle for Marxism in the United States, was by far the best book so far on Jim Cannon, although I await with considerable expectation the redoubtable Canadian Marxist historian Bryan Palmer’s forthcoming political biography of Cannon.
One of Wohlforth’s main points is that Cannon frequently tended to resort to organisational solutions to political problems, and that his exaggerated hostility to “petit-bourgeois intellectuals” was associated with this tendency to look for organisational solutions to political problems, which were often posed by “petit-bourgeois intellectuals”.
This weakness in Cannon, while not politically defensible, was comprehensible in a workers’ leader, such as Cannon, given his real experiences and history. Regurgitated in the year 2004, by a voluble and opinionated committeeman like Peter Boyle, Cannon’s political weakness in this area becomes something approaching farce.
A number of the committeemen (and committeewomen) of the DSP leadership spend all of their time working in a dedicated and committed way for the socialist movement. The negative feature of this dedication is that it’s often carried out in one building, where the leaders spend most of their time with each other, or with other DSP members, which tends to narrows their horizons dramatically. They tend to know a bit, in a force-fed way, about “Leninist principles of organisation”, Cannon, Zinoviev, Castro and Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution, etc, etc, but their real experience and knowledge of the Australian labour movement, the workers’ movement and even Australian society in general, remains rather narrow and primitive.
They plead pressure of organising work, journalism etc, when trying to justify the narrowness of their horizons. For the past 30 years we have lived through a period of relative capitalist boom and expansion, by and large, which makes the US boom of the 1920s look like a blip. Jim Cannon commented on the 1920s boom in the US that it tended to undermine the development of the revolutionary movement, and to produce a situation where the members of the small communist movement were swimming against the stream of the prevailing affluence in society at large. How much more is the effect of the past 30 years on the cadres of the socialist movement.
In these difficult conditions in Australia, the DSP has been relatively successful in building and preserving a smallish political apparatus, but it appears that the circumstances in which the DSP leadership works in this political environment have lowered its political-cultural level in relation to the world outside, particularly the workers’ movement in the world outside.
In a fairly careful way this morning, before he went off to do the Green Left stall, Simon Butler quotes Trotsky explaining that from his point of view the petit-bourgeois characteristics of intellectuals came not really from their social origins but from where they stood on the party question.
Leaving aside the limitations of this view in relation to intellectuals who play a progressive role on many questions despite the fact that they know nothing at all of any party question, this view of Trotsky, which was valid up to a point, needs closer examination.
If one does a serious overview of the life work and writings of Lenin and Trotsky, it emerges that, for them, by and large the party question was intimately tied up with the function of the party as an instrument for social change and social revolution. Both Lenin and Trotsky broke with and busted up quite a few parties when they concluded that these parties no longer fulfilled the necessary revolutionary function.
Towards the end of his life Lenin, in particular, became deeply alarmed by the negative characteristics emerging in both the Russian party and the Russian state that he had been largely instrumental in creating, but his attempts to tackle these problems were, unfortunately, abruptly cut short by his illness and death.
When a small socialist group freezes into a smug, self-satisfied sect, with no realistic perspectives for activity in the workers’ movement, the party question tends to turn into its opposite, and the leaders of the sect tend to become totally obsessed with the organisational aspect of the party question, particularly with their almost divinely endowed prerogative to be the leaders of the small sect.
On these problems, I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I’m fiercely aware of where a number of the problems lie, on the basis of an extensive life experience and a fair amount of study. Unfortunately, knowledge and understanding often comes from negative experience.
It’s not so long ago that Peter Boyle was working himself into a lather about the notion of a “labour aristocracy”, which he clawed brutally out of Zinoviev and Lenin in the different circumstances of 1916 and plonked in front of us, wriggling, in the totally different circumstances of Australia in the year 2003.
He does the same thing in his ignorant way with the notion of “petit-bourgeois intellectuals”, who he crudely pictures as being directly corrupted by the ideology of the bourgeoisie, and he even paints crudely exaggerated little pictures for us of these “petit-bourgeois intellectuals” being directly bribed by the ruling class.
Neither in his overdone and inaccurate current construct of the “labour aristocracy” nor his equally overdone construct about “petit-bourgeois intellectuals” does he seem to have even noticed the changes that have taken place in both the working class, the new social layers and the petit-bourgeoisie, which can be described both as the proletarianisation of intellectual labour and the intellectualisation, automation and computerisation of manual labour.
Junior staff members in universities are forced on to individual contracts, which is a brutal form of proletarianisation. Wharfies, by and large sit in little booths pressing buttons to move containers with cranes and computers. Nursing, perhaps the fastest growing section of the workforce in advanced societies, combines hard and difficult manual work such as lifting and moving patients, etc, with detailed and complex medical procedures, psychology, the use of computers, monitors, etc.
Many students working their way through university, which is necessary because of the fees, spend their part-time working lives in the ruthless, super-exploited environment of call centres.
In Australia, constant mass migration from changing sources for nearly the past 50 years, combined with the changing nature of work and the workforce, has reconfigured the working class and changed its racial and educational composition, making it considerably more diverse than in the past. There has also been a certain political reconfiguration. The broad split in society expressed politically in the split between the trade-union-based Labor Party and the conservative parties generally supported by the big bourgeoisie, has been modified a bit. A new electoral formation has emerged on the left, the Greens, located almost entirely, electorally, within the new social layers, while the Labor Party has retained its electoral grip on the overwhelming majority of the traditional blue-collar working class a large part of which is now composed of relatively recent migrants of non-English-speaking background.
Small socialist groups, particularly the DSP, have been now running for a considerable number of yeas in elections against the big electoral force of the Labor Party, and now the Greens, with no recognisable impact. The function of a trained Marxist leadership, the kind of leadership that the DSP aspires to be, with all their study of Lenin, Cannon and organisational principles, haven’t been capable of elaborating any kind of realistic perspective to bridge the gap between the situation of the small socialist groups and the allegiance of the overwhelming majority of the progressive half of the population to Laborism and the Greens.
If the DSP leadership had spent more time studying the concrete details of the history of the Australian workers’ movement than the time they have spent developing an abstract and crudified “Leninism” they might be a bit closer to elaborating a serious perspective for Marxists.
Neither of brother Boyle’s desperate, archaic intellectual constructions about either “aristocracies of labour” or “petit- bourgeois intellectuals” directly bribed by the ruling class are of much use in building a serious socialist movement in modern conditions, or in elaborating a realistic perspective towards that end.
In this kind of ideological sphere, Peter Boyle succeeds in sounding like a very real caricature of New Class theorists such as Paddy McGuinness and all the right-wing dingbats who prattle about a new class of members of the petit-bourgeoisie, who they say peddle poisonous “anti-popular” ideas.
Getting back to the question of labour movement history, at the recent seminar that Boyle talks about, I had a good look at the literature that had obviously been on sale to the DSP members and the youth who had been attending the DSP school in the previous week.
The DSP leadership is pretty good at drumming a few basic ideas into people in an eclectic way in a fairly narrow framework. I was fascinated to see carefully photocopied large chunks of Cannon almost entirely on organisational questions, including long chapters from the History of American Trotskyism, Cannon’s entertaining, interesting, but politically speaking worst and most self-indulgent book, which embodies the political weaknesses that I’ve been discussing above.
In the history of the revolutionary socialist movement, Jim Cannon was a courageous, important and towering figure, and from where I sit it’s very sad to see his weaknesses and errors being used as a kind of intellectual club to beat anyone, particularly some of the youth, who dare to question the organisational conceptions of the DSP leadership.
I’m not saying that a serious and comprehensive knowledge of the Marxists classics, the works of Lenin, Trotsky, Cannon, etc are not extremely useful to socialist agitators. They obviously are, and I have the greatest respect for all those socialist thinkers. In a very real sense we stand on the shoulders of those who’ve gone before.
Their legacy, however, has to be reworked and analysed critically. In particular, it has to be tested and reworked in relation to the experience, politics and society of one’s own country, in this case Australia.
The old Communist Party tended to create a culture that soaked CP members in Australian history. This approach had some nationalist defects, but taken as a whole it was pretty useful, and it was hardly accidental that the older generation of Marxist labour movement historians developed their historical knowledge in the CP environment.
Their serious historical knowledge and their critical faculties really developed more substantially when they broke with and transcended the Stalinist high culture, but nevertheless the preoccupation in CP circles with Australian history gave them a serious grounding on which to build, and their intellectual building necessarily included the negation of Stalinism.
By way of contrast, the modern neo-Trotskyist groups, particularly the DSP, have tended to throw out the baby of Australian history with the bathwater of Stalinism, so you get the grotesque phenomenon of a younger generation of Australian Marxists who know a great deal about Trotsky, Zinoviev, Lenin, Cannon and Castro, but very little about the history of the Australian workers’ movement.
To brutally bowdlerise a writer from the past: who knows Jim Cannon who only Jim Cannon knows?
The vigorous but guarded responses on the Green Left list to Ed Lewis’s observations suggest to me that these questions are a real hornets’ nest in DSP circles.
The methodological issues in Australian history, about which I’m challenging the DSP leadership, are raised in a systematic way in my polemic, Dumbing Down Australian History and its Teaching (cited above), against the historian of the CPA, Stuart MacIntyre.
January 17, 2005
“In his last blast Bob Gould was very dismissive of the evidence provided by article numbers via web searches. — Nick Fredman
I wasn’t being dismissive of web searches. I’ve found them very useful. My slightly dismissive tone was really directed at the way some people use a bit of a web search to divert attention from the main thrust of an argument.
I also didn’t compare Green Left Weekly with Socialist Worker. From a practical point of view, GLW is the only game in town these days, as far as serious socialist newspapers are concerned. The other papers, including Socialist Worker, don’t appear regularly enough to matter much, which is one of the reasons why I take the DSP deadly seriously, and argue with it so much.
Nevertheless, Nick Fredman’s web search result of 40 references to labour history over 13 years confirms my general point about the DSP’s cavalier attitude to labour history, in spades. Over 13 years, that amounts to about three references a year, in which there are usually about 45 issues of GLW. That’s one reference every 15 issues.
As to Alan Bradley’s proposition that the DSP has a tendency to heroism because it discourages academic careerism in its members, I have no way of knowing if that’s true or not. What I do know is that we all live in capitalist society and that teaching in capitalist society, either in schools or universities, is a key way of disseminating ideas to the next generation. It was very much the tradition of the old CPA to encourage likely student types to get staff jobs in universities, particularly in the social sciences, to influence the next generation in the direction of socialism.
Having staff jobs in universities in the social sciences both solves the problem of needing to earn a living under capitalism, and has considerable ideological utility. To reduce it to the question of possible careerism is narrow-minded, peurile and politically very short-sighted.
Careerism can be a problem for socialists in most spheres of life, but it’s not particularly pronounced in the social sciences in academe these days, compared with the private sector and the big end of town. Alan Bradley and Peter Boyle may just have noticed the fierce ideological offensive by the right wing of the bourgeoisie, on the universities, particularly on the social sciences, which focuses on the very point that academics in the social sciences come under a kind of general fatwa from the right wing in society ideologically, for allegedly corrupting the youth by teaching them anti-capitalist ideas.
Despite my well-known polemical assaults on the ephemeral post-modernist ideological fashion in universities, I don’t believe that the most pressing danger is Boyle’s fantasy of “petit-bourgeois intellectuals” corrupting the Marxist movement.
Bob Gould, Ed Lewis and Jenny O’Donnell
January 17, 2004
Paperclayman accuses people involved in Ozleft of a relentless assault on the Green Left discussion site. In Paperclayman’s small universe this response may also appear relentless. The Green Left list makes a point of being unmoderated other than entirely legitimate considerations about libel and personal abuse.
We accept those limitations, and are very careful about matters of libel and try to avoid gratuitous personal abuse, although if a bit comes our way, some might come back.
The aim of the list is surely serious political discussion within a broadly Marxist framework and we choose to argue on the list on broad, strategic and political questions and on ideological questions among concerned Marxists and socialists.
If the discussion proceeds on strategic questions, where we and others disagree with the DSP, how is that unreasonable? This particular strand started off when Bob Gould made a careful and, in our view, responsible, critique of a pamphlet published by the DSP on labour history, which had been reviewed in Green Left Weekly.
In fact, it has been a fairly careful discussion by all the participants.
Do Paperclayman and Ben Reid have a conception of political discussion on the Green Left list that one of the prerequisites for discussion must be political agreement with the perspectives of the DSP?
If that is to become the case, the Green Left list will become a very narrow and self-congratulatory kind of discussion list.
We would also make the point that there have been three or four energetic posters on this list at different times who’ve made much less considered and considerably more extravagant assaults on the DSP than we have, without even any suggestion by anyone that they should be excluded from the list.
The rather panicky intervention of Paperclayman seems to be significant and rather dangerous, because Paperclayman seems to be a collective pseudonym used by a couple of people including some close to the DSP leadership.
Another aspect of some recent responses that’s a bit alarming is the reeling off of ourselves in association with some others, who are implied to be our associates, putting us all in the same bag as critics of the DSP. Are all those who argue with the DSP leadership — such people as Lytton Welsh, Tristan Ewins, Shane Hopkinson, Michael Berrell and Max Watts — to be excluded from the list because they argue with the DSP leadership from time to time?
We sense a possible witch-hunt in the making to avoid serious political discussion.
January 18, 2004
Ben Reid’s petulant anger about my mate Jenny mentioning the useful film reviews on the World Socialist Web Site is quite revealing.
The problem for Ben Reid, as John Percy who is an expert on these matters, can probably tell him, is that in Webland the World Socialist Web Site is the competition, and at the moment it’s way ahead even of the rather impressive web readership of the DSP’s various sites.
It’s all very well for Ben Reid to foam at the mouth about the political antecedents of the WSWS, but the antecedents of that set-up are only part of the story. It’s worth observing that one of the smaller groups affiliated to the Socialist Alliance also came out of the break-up of the Healy international organisation in 1986-87.
Unless you believe in original sin, the main political consideration is the current content and political activity of a group, although of course its history has significant bearing, obviously, on its current activity.
The interesting thing about the WSWS is the rather large readership that it seems to have acquired to make it the most-hit explicitly socialist site on the web, although I’m sure John Percy could give us more detail on ratings for the various websites, as he has obviously studied these things carefully.
The interesting thing, to me, having parted company with Dave North and company nearly 20 years ago, is how the WSWS has evolved. Like Dennis Berrell and Jenny O’Donnell, I have fundamental political differences with the general line of the WSWS, but I’m also struck by its professionalism and by the intelligent writing on it.
There was always a strain in the Healy organisations of serious attention to matters of art and culture, and that has clearly flourished a bit on the WSWS. My disagreements with the WSWS are in pretty much the same territory as my disagreements with Green Left and the DSP leadership.
In a slightly more elegant way than the DSP and Green Left, North and company routinely condemn all the workers’ mass political organisations and assert that because of their reactionary leaderships there has been a qualitative change and therefore these are no longer workers’ organisations.
They go a little further than the DSP and extend that analysis to a condemnation of the existing trade union structures as well, which they now assert are no longer workers’ organisations.
They assert that the only major task for the working class in the various countries is to build the Socialist Equality Party and the WSWS in total opposition to all the existing mass organisations.
In this respect they’re in pretty much the same territory as the DSP, which asserts that building the Socialist Alliance in opposition to the mass political organisations of the working class is the primary task.
The political differences between the WSWS and Green Left are not, in fact, terribly large, but the cultural interest and the analysis on the WSWS is often wider and more detailed than that on Green Left.
When the North-Beams group made the turn to the web six or seven years ago, they in one fell swoop liquidated all their newspapers, which was a source of great bitterness to many people here in Australia who had busted their guts to produce the twice-weekly Workers News for years. But the North-Beams group asserted brutally that socialist newspapers had had their day and the only way to go was the web.
I disagree deeply with them about that, and I believe that there’s still plenty of scope for properly produced, hard-copy socialist newspapers.
However, in making the turn to the web, North-Beams et al positioned themselves very well by the choice of name, and they seem to have been pretty good at promoting their site and have been up the top for a while now among socialist sites.
Their essential political line is thoroughly ultraleft, just a little more ultraleft than that of Green Left and the DSP, but the language and the journalism of their site is more literate, careful and less strident than the old language of the SLL, the Workers League and the WRP.
They seem to have almost established themselves as some kind of web journal of record for the ultraleft.
As a rather late convert to the web I don’t claim to be an expert, but I’m learning fast, and it seems to me that the large web audiences of the WSWS, the Green Left complex, Labor Net and Workers Online are not to be ignored or sniffed at by serious socialists.
Even the website hosted by Margo Kingston for the Fairfax press seems to be a very useful liberal-left forum where socialists would be wise to have a presence.
However, the political anomaly and conundrum for serious socialists is in this area is that the WSWS and the Green Left site both get a very large number of hits in Australia, although the Green Left site’s hits are quite a bit fewer than those of the WSWS. Nevertheless, people I know who went to the WSWS conference at the University of NSW a month or two ago tell me the attendance was very modest, and the number of people in Sydney involved in the website seems pretty small.
I attend, as a matter of course, most Socialist Alliance and DSP public events in Sydney, and they also seem to be fairly small, other than the kind of mega-event held when a figure such as John Pilger or Tariq Ali is the drawcard. The conclusion I draw from this all of this is that there’s a radical audience out there, a lot of which is getting used to using the web, but that doesn’t easily translate into the micro-politics of socialist organisations, and that’s a problem for us all.
I’d say, quite seriously, to Ben Reid, I don’t agree with what I regard as the ultraleft politics of the WSWS either, but being in the same line of business, so to speak, they’re the DSP's web competition, as is Ozleft in a much more modest way in the sphere of socialist documentation and theoretical discussion.
It would be better for you to adopt a more comradely tone rather than just lapsing into apoplectic fury when my mate Jenny makes a fairly obvious point about the excellent film reviews on the WSWS.