The state of the class struggle and the main character of our work: a reply to Comrade Graham Matthews

The Activist – Volume 17, Number 11, October 2007
By Doug Lorimer (Sydney Central branch)

In his PCD article “Are we really in 1954?” (Activist Vol 17. #10), Comrade Graham Matthews takes issue with my PCD article “On Comrade Dave Holmes’ ‘transitional approach to party building’“ (Activist Vol. 17, #9), stating that I poured “particular scorn on Dave’s argument wherein he drew a parallel to the situation in the US in 1938 and the situation we face in Australia today. Doug argues that, in fact, the situation we face is ‘a much more ‘striking parallel’ with 1954 in the US – a situation that he describes as a ‘slowdown in the class struggle’. Doug then goes on to take an extensive quote from James P. Cannon from the middle of that year, which motivates that for the next two years the Socialist Workers Party’s (SWP) work should consist “largely, primarily and almost exclusively of propaganda and pedagogy’ (quotes from TA Vol. 17, #9, p43).”

1938, 1954 and Australia today

After citing some quotes from Barry Sheppard’s 2005 book The Party, describing the 1950s Cold War anti-communist witch-hunt in the US, Comrade Matthews asks: “Does the situation, as described by Barry, really fit the political situation in Australia today?”

Well, obviously not – there is no Cold War anti-communist witch-hunt. However, in my PCD criticising Comrade Holmes’ October 2006 discussion article, the only similarity I drew between the situation we face today in Australia and that faced by the US SWP in 1954 was that there is a “slowdown in the class struggle”. I wrote:

Below is an excerpt from James P. Cannon’s Speech to the Sixteenth Convention of the SWP (1954), which describes a much more “striking parallel” to the situation in the US to that which we face in Australia today, i.e., a “slowdown in the class struggle”. In his speech, Cannon argues that Marxists have to “determine our immediate tactics by what we see before us”. In a radical departure from this method. Comrade Holmes argues that we should determine our immediate party-building tactics not “by what we see before us”, but by the situation that Comrade Holmes and other majority leaders wish was before us, i.e., that there are “thousands of workers” willing to join the SA “if we can just reach them”.

Does Comrade Matthews agree or disagree with the argument made by Comrade Holmes that we can recruit “thousands of workers” to the SA “if we can just reach them”? This was the central proposition in Comrade Holmes’ October 2006 discussion article. Comrade Matthews however says nothing directly about it. Later in his PCD Comrade Matthews states: “As Marxists, we must be discerning in our judgements about the political situation we face. We must try to be as objective as possible, avoiding the tendency to allow wishes for class struggle to run away with us…” Is this an indirect admonishment of Comrade Holmes’ argument?

Now, Comrade Holmes, it should be recalled, had, as Comrade Matthews notes, drawn “a parallel to the situation in the US in 1938 and the situation we face in Australia today”. The latter situation, as Cannon observed in his report to the 1952 SWP convention (see “What Must Lead to a New Labor Upsurge”, Speeches to the Party, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1973), was characterised by “the insurgent, semi-revolutionary mass movements of the middle and late 1930s, which rose up on the yeast of the Great Depression” and in which millions of previously unorganised blue-collar workers in the US auto, steel, maritime, roadroad, trucking and food processing industries were unionised for the first time.

In that same report, Cannon pointed out that “Big changes have taken place since the stormy days of the early CIO – and even since the years 1944-1946 [when the US experienced the greatest strike wave in its history]. In the past five or six years of the armaments boom, the class struggle has been muffled, mainly as a result of full employment and comparatively high wages… We speak here of the eleven-year boom and its consequences on the mentality of the workers. This boom – as far as I know – is unprecedented in the history of capitalism, in its scope and duration. We have economic prosperity combined with political reaction.”

In referring to the situation facing the SWP in 1954 as a “slowdown in the class struggle”, Cannon was contrasting it with the big upsurges of labour radicalism and militancy of the mid- and late thirties and 1944-46. In arguing that the situation we face today in Australia is much more similar to that faced by the SWP in 1954 (“a slowdown in the class struggle”) than it faced in 1938 (a “semi-revolutionary” strike wave), I was not arguing that it was identical to 1954.

While Comrade Matthews does not directly say he disagrees with Comrade Holmes’ October 2006 claim that the situation we face today is “strikingly parallel” to that faced by the US SWP in 1938, nor does he state explicit disagreement that we face a “slowdown in the class struggle”. He skirts away from the issue with the argument that “the working class in Australia remains in retreat” adding: “there is no working-class offensive, for instance, for a shorter work week with no loss in pay. The general pattern of struggles is defensive – stop this, don’t do that, defend the right to do the other thing. We can agree on that.”

Certainly all LPF comrades can agree on that. The draft resolution on party-building that we have submitted for vote at the 23rd DSP congress explicitly acknowledges (point 8) that the “class struggle in Australia is still dominated by the ongoing retreat of the working class in the face of the capitalist neoliberal offensive”, i.e., it is the capitalist ruling class, and not the working class, that is on the offensive.

While the draft resolution that the Majority Resolution Faction, of which Comrade Matthews is a leading member, has been constituted on does not make any such explicit statement, it implies in point 7 that it is the ruling class, rather than the working class, that is on the offensive (the “attack”): “The Australian ruling class is attempting to reverse rights to organise that [the] working class has won through a century of struggle and the ALP continues to move to the right, leaving it increasingly exposed before all who want to fight the capitalist attack.

However, this does not answer the question of whether the situation we face in Australia today can be generally characterised as a “slowdown in the class struggle”, rather than an upsurge. It is possible for there to be a situation in which the capitalists are on the offensive (“attack”), and for this to be met by an upsurge of defensive struggles by the working class, a generalised upsurge of working-class resistance to the capitalist attack. This is what happened, for example, in France last year. And, as Comrade Allen Myers detailed in his PCD article “The test of two lines” (Activist Vol. 17, #9), this is what the comrades now leading the MRF anticipated was going to happen here in 2006 in the wake of the mass rallies called by the ACTU on November 15, 2005.

By contrast, the report on the Australian political situation presented to the 22nd DSP congress by Comrade Max Lane (the general line of which is part of the platform of the LPF) argued that the ACTU “campaign will remain an essentially electoralist campaign, relying on TV advertising and marginal seat campaigning and occasionally using well-controlled mass rallies and marches, but only if deemed useful electorally…

“The resistance to Howard’s IR attacks will probably take a different form once the legislation is passed, with struggles more focused on specific workplaces, sectors and unions under attack by the bosses.”

And it is here that we come to a continuing difference in the assessment of the Australian political situation between the LPF and the leaders of the MRF. While the LPF’s draft congress resolution (point 8) argues that we face a general situation in Australia where “Defeat after defeat without a real test of the contending forces is punctuated by only sporadic outbursts of active dissent and dispersed defensive struggles”, Comrade Matthews argues that “Should the Coalition be returned at the November 24 election, we should reasonably assume that the fight will be resumed”.

If by “the fight”, Comrade Matthews means the ACTU-organised national anti-Work Choices campaign, with its occasional nationally coordinated mass rallies, upon what reasons does he think it should be assumed that this will be resumed? Isn’t it more reasonable to assume that the real “fight” against Work Choices (whether under a returned Coalition government or under a Rudd Labor government) will continue to take the form that it has had since March 2006 when these laws came into effect, i.e., “dispersed defensive struggles”, “struggles focused on specific workplaces, sectors and unions under attack by the bosses”?

Propaganda and agitation for action

After noting that the “general pattern of struggles is defensive”, Comrade Mathews asks: “Does this mean, however, that there are no opportunities for socialists to agitate for action in this period? Does this mean that we should confine our work to be ‘largely, primarily and almost exclusively propaganda and pedagogy’ as Doug and presumably the LPF argue?”

The LPF’s answer to these questions is given in its draft party-building resolution (points 16, 17 & 18):

16. The DSP’s public interventions should be guided by the Marxist conception of the united front tactic, the essence of which is to “march separately but strike together.” The dual purpose of this tactic is to seek to bring together the broadest possible forces for effective action while allowing the Marxist forces to demonstrate in practice the superiority of Marxist strategy and tactics. A resurfaced DSP would seek agreement for joint action with other forces as an openly Marxist party, not as the DSP holding up the mask of the SA.

17. As we recognised in our resolution The Election of the Howard Government and the Perspectives of the DSP adopted by our January 1997 DSP congress:

“While we are too small to directly alter the objective political situation by calling into being mass struggles, this does not mean that our role is limited to commenting on events from the sidelines. [Emphasis added – DL] We can initiate modest-sized actions that can set an example of how to struggle to broader forces. Where these actions raise issues and demands that connect with the concerns of and sentiments of the broad masses, such actions can have an impact on the class struggle by forcing the labour bureaucracy, the capitalist media and the bourgeois parties to address these issues and concerns.”

18. Our 1997 resolution says that strengthening our organised nucleus of Marxist cadres “has been the central task facing us since the founding of our party [in 1972] … our main tactical orientation is to directly recruit to our tendency newly radicalising youth and to transform them, through education in Marxist theory and practical experience in the mass movement, into professional revolutionary propagandists, agitators and organisers.” While our goal is to build a mass revolutionary workers’ party,

“We recognise that we are not such a mass party or anything approaching it. We are the propaganda nucleus of such a party. This means that all our activities are propagandistic in their goals, that is, aimed at reaching out to radicalising workers and students without [revolutionary Marxist] ideas. And winning them to our ranks. It means that we put priority in our activity, including in the mass movement, on explaining and popularising our ideas through … seeking to win the widest readership that we can for our most effective propaganda tool, Green Left Weekly.”

The above points remain true today.

Does Comrade Matthews agree? Apparently not, since he condemns such an approach – one that recognises that our main work is largely, primarily but not exclusively that of propaganda – as “quiet contemplation and pedagogy”!

What alternative approach does Comrade Matthews propose instead? He writes: “We must continue to look for political opportunities to agitate and build alliances with forces willing to take political action”. Well of course we should. But even if many more such opportunities were to arise, until we have won the political allegiance of mass forces, our primary work will still be propagandistic rather than agitational. Or does Comrade Matthews now think the following exposition of Leninist strategy and tactics is completely false?

Excerpt from “Cannonism Versus Barnesism”, by Doug Lorimer, Building the Revolutionary Party: An introduction to James P. Cannon (New Course Publications, Sydney, 1997):

The central task facing any small revolutionary organisation is to recruit, educate and train cadres. As a consequence the aim of its activities must be propagandistic. On the most elementary level such activities include the educational work of oral political discussions with interested coworkers, the production and circulation of printed propaganda, public forums, internal educational classes, running candidates for public office and so on. They also include participation along with others in strikes, strike support activities, public rallies and street marches, etc., where the Marxist forces gain opportunities to demonstrate in practice the relevance and correctness of their strategy and their capacities as leaders of the mass movement. The key objective, however, is still that of accumulating cadres.

To transcend the propaganda stage of party-building, to reach the position of being able to bring the objective situation under the conscious control of revolutionary forces, requires winning over massive forces – numbers so great as to make a qualitative difference. Once this qualitative point is reached, activities having an aim qualitatively different from those of the propaganda stage become both possible and necessary. The struggle for state power, previously excluded, is placed on the agenda of the day. In April 1917, for example, when the Bolshevik party had some 80,000 members throughout Russia, Lenin emphasised that the party’s central task was still that of conducting propaganda work, of “patiently explaining” to the masses the Bolsheviks’ policies and of “preparing and welding” the cadres of a mass revolutionary workers’ party. In the months preceding the October Revolution, Lenin stressed repeatedly that the Bolsheviks’ tasks were limited to the propaganda work of “explaining” their policies and “criticising and exposing” the errors of their political opponents in order to win over to their side a class-conscious and organised majority among the workers. Only when the Bolsheviks had achieved this, did Lenin signal that qualitatively new tasks had become possible and necessary. On September 25-27, 1917 Lenin called on the Bolshevik party to launch a struggle for state power, stating his premise and conclusion in one sentence: “Having obtained a majority in the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies of both capitals [i.e., of Petrograd and Moscow], the Bolsheviks can and must take power into their hands.”

The Activist was as the internal discussion bulletin of the Democratic Socialist Party