The Political and Organisational Degeneration of the DSP
By Allen Myers
On May 10, 2008, a subcommittee of the national executive of the Democratic Socialist Perspective (DSP– formerly Democratic Socialist Party) announced a predetermined decision to expel all of the members of a minority faction of that organisation. Those expelled represented a bit less than a fifth of the DSP's total members, and around one-third of its active members. They included a broad cross-section of the organisation, from relatively young and new recruits to revolutionary politics, to comrades with more than three decades devoted to the DSP, including founding members of Resistance and the Socialist Workers League (predecessor of the DSP)– party full-timers, union militants, students, blue collar and white collar workers, unemployed.
It is ironic that this new division in the Australian left originates, at least in part, in an attempt to bring about greater left unity. The differences that split the DSP into two organisations began in relation to the Socialist Alliance.
Origins of the Socialist Alliance
By the end of 2000, the Democratic Socialist Party was well established as the largest and most influential group on the Australian left. As the chief force behind the newspaper Green Left Weekly, it had a large national and international audience for its views and had won considerable respect for the professional and non-sectarian manner in which GLW was managed, produced and distributed. Between 2003 and 2005, the GLW web site was the most popular political site in Australia.
The DSP had played a major role in organising the blockade of the September 11, 2000, World Economic Forum in Melbourne. Resistance, the youth group in political solidarity with the DSP, was the only sizeable socialist youth group in the country, and had an established record of organising militant anti-racist actions among youth, especially high school students.
After having left the Fourth International in the mid-1980s, the DSP had made good on its pledge to develop comradely collaboration with socialists from a variety of different origins around the world. This collaboration was conducted through DSP leaders' visits to important events in other countries, attendance of international guests at regional and international conferences organised by the DSP in Australia, frequent exchanges of information and participation in Links, the international theoretical journal of socialist discussion initiated and sponsored by the DSP.
Nevertheless, the DSP was well aware that being the biggest group on the Australian left was very much a matter of being the least small fish in a very small pond. Being the biggest in this situation was not a cause for complacency but an obligation to search for ways to bring about greater unity in the badly fragmented left.
At the end of 2000 and beginning of 2001, the DSP discerned an opportunity to increase collaboration on the Australian left. The British Socialist Workers Party, the leading organisation in the current to which the International Socialist Organisation in Australia belonged, had reversed its previous opposition to participating in elections and become part of an electoral Socialist Alliance in England. In the DSP, we judged that the ISO would certainly be considering similar tactics, and we decided to seize the day.
While we welcomed any turn by the ISO away from electoral abstention, it would be no great step forward if all it meant was one more small socialist group contesting elections. We therefore decided to propose an Australian Socialist Alliance to the ISO. We saw such an organisation as more than a purely electoral pact: it could be a vehicle to regroup the existing socialist organisations and newly radicalising layers into united campaigning in the social movements.
To our delight, the ISO accepted our proposal. A letter signed by John Percy on behalf of the DSP and Ian Rintoul on behalf of the ISO was circulated to the left, calling for a meeting on February 17, 2001. It stated: "Our two organisations are confident that there will be enough agreement to form an electoral alliance at this meeting and that this will be greeted with enthusiasm by significant numbers of radical activists outside the ranks of the organised left".
At that point, the DSP was the largest and the ISO the next largest organisation on the Australian left. Their decision to form a Socialist Alliance to contest elections therefore could not help but attract many other smaller groups, as was intended. When the SA was launched, with some large meetings in Melbourne and Sydney, there were nine affiliates. As well, the prediction in the Percy-Rintoul letter proved accurate: various "independents" – people who identified as socialists but were not members of any of the various organisations– soon began joining and eventually became a majority of the total membership of SA.
A false analysis
For the DSP, the initial popularity of SA reinforced an optimistic analysis of the political situation. The then national secretary of the DSP, John Percy, described this in the DSP's 2005 pre-congress discussion:
"Following a number of mass mobilisations in the previous few years – MUA defence in 1998, big demonstrations for East Timor, antiracist mobilisations against Pauline Hanson etc– we were optimistic. We also felt the international momentum from the growing anti-globalisation protests after Seattle in 1999. And we were closely watching a number of regroupment and alliance efforts in Europe. With the mass blockade of the World Economic Forum in Melbourne on September 11, 2000, we felt that radicalisation had really hit our shores, and the time was right for us to attempt a major reach-out project such as the Socialist Alliance."
The DSP thought that we were experiencing the beginning of a new working-class radicalisation, and that the Socialist Alliance could be the best vehicle for relating to this. New layers of union and movement activists would be attracted to a broad socialist party in which revolutionaries would have the opportunity to win growing numbers to their ideas. Peter Boyle, the current national secretary of the DSP, explained the thinking in a 2003 article in Links:
"The current political situation is creating new openings to collect a bigger revolutionary vanguard in Australia …
"A layer of newly radicalised activists has joined re-inspired older activists in a new cycle of protest. These radicalised layers are very interested in real steps towards left regroupment and unity. Our estimate is that, by making the Socialist Alliance the party we build today, we will gather more of the class-conscious vanguard of the working class and increase its ability to link up with the broadest masses."
The DSP national executive voted at the beginning of September 2002 to transform the DSP into an internal tendency of SA. The latter would become "the party we build". The DSP would seek to direct all its public political activity through SA. It would not recruit new DSP members directly, but would seek to win comrades who had first joined SA.
This idea did not meet a welcoming response from other affiliates of SA, however. The ISO in particular saw the move as fundamentally changing the character of SA. The ISO had agreed to participate in an alliance, not to join a new party with the DSP. The ISO threatened to leave SA if the DSP proceeded with its plan.
In the face of this opposition, the DSP slowed down the implementation but did not abandon its course. The idea of moving towards a "multi-tendency socialist party" ("MTSP") was favoured by most of the "independent" or "non-aligned" SA members, and the DSP decided that these forces could be used to pressure the ISO and other reluctant affiliates into going along with its proposals. The May 2003 SA national conference voted by a 75% majority for a MTSP. But the DSP had made a major miscalculation.
As noted, the DSP expected a growing layer of newly radicalising activists to provide a more or less steady flow of new forces into SA. This ever growing new layer, attracted by SA's dynamic of left unity, would put the other affiliates between a rock and a hard place: either cut themselves off from these new forces or continue as an active part of Socialist Alliance. Convinced of this perspective, the DSP congress at the end of 2003 voted to turn the party into an internal tendency of SA and to integrate as much of its resources as possible, as quickly as possible, into SA.
In fact, however, the DSP had misjudged the political environment. We had thought we were at the beginning of a new working-class radicalisation, and we were wrong. The newly radicalising layers that were to bolster the DSP's plans for SA failed to appear; SA membership never rose significantly above the figure for 2001. In this situation, the affiliates that opposed the MTSP plan were not under any great pressure to participate in a project with which they disagreed, and they stopped being active in SA even if they did not formally end their membership. The ISO, for example, generally stopped participating in SA activities in early 2004 although not formally withdrawing until three years later.
As the other affiliates dropped away, the DSP soon learned to its discomfort that the non-aligned members were not a sufficient basis for transforming SA into a real party. Many had signed up and paid dues mainly as support for the idea of left unity, not as a pledge that they themselves would be much involved in SA. DSP members found themselves carrying most of the organisational tasks of SA, spending hours ringing SA independents about events that they mostly didn't come to and organising meetings attended by disappointingly few. As a result, the DSP suffered as its cadres devoted most of their political time to SA. Within a year, the DSP faced multiple crises.
An attempted correction
As early as June 2004, the DSP national committee began trying to grapple with what was called "the two-party problem". The problem was that, with very few reinforcements from independent SA members, the DSP was trying to build both the DSP and SA. The following May, a meeting of the DSP national committee heard a report, delivered by Peter Boyle on behalf of the national executive, titled "DSP and Socialist Alliance: an urgent reality check". The report acknowledged the failure of the attempt to integrate the DSP and its resources into SA; this effort was "stalled without new political developments"– i.e. without the kind of radicalisation the DSP had been expecting.
The report went on to state bluntly: "The current level of substitution involved in our work in SA is unsustainable". That is, DSP cadres were "substituting" for the missing independent members of SA, making up for the non-existent members through frenetic activity, and could not go on doing so. A photograph used to illustrate the report showed a donkey hitched to a cart so laden that the donkey was lifted into the air, unable to move a step. The donkey was the DSP, the cart was SA.
The unsustainable level of substitution, the report pointed out, was evident from three major problems: declining DSP membership, declining sales of Green Left Weekly and a financial crisis. In 2004, the DSP national office budget had begun with an unsustainable deficit that had only partially been overcome during the rest of the year. In 2005, at the time of the report, the deficit was almost as large as that a year earlier. (The budget crisis was overcome in 2005 only through a major public appeal to supporters of GLW.) In the first months of 2005, the report noted, GLW average weekly sales were down more than 11% from the previous year. And DSP cadres were being chewed up by overwork: "Over the last couple of years we've begun to do more and more with fewer and fewer cadre. But we cannot keep doing this. We will begin to wear the most active comrades down and eventually exacerbate our cadre problem".
The report, unanimously adopted by the national committee, proposed an eight-point "shift of priorities in the next period back to building the DSP as our basic party structure".
"These eight points", the report stressed, "add up to a significant shift of resources and priorities … And this reprioritisation is unavoidably going to be at the expense of the resources that we can allocate to building the Socialist Alliance".
A section of the report was headed, "Re-imagining our party building perspective". This noted that "we have to work out a more realistic engagement and vision for Socialist Alliance in the present political conditions". Questions raised, to which "I don't yet have the answers", the reporter stated, included the political potential of the SA membership; whether the non-aligned members could be drawn into taking greater responsibility for SA; whether SA was really an electoral front, a periphery organisation or something else; the role of SA in DSP trade union work; how many resources to devote to SA; and whether the DSP should return to being a public party at its January 2006 congress.
However, the proposed "re-imagining" never really took place. This was because a majority of the DSP leadership soon convinced themselves that the problems in the DSP were not really that serious and that the party's misjudgment of the political environment was perhaps only a small error of timing. This viewpoint was able to seize on a paragraph of the report that stated:
"Our perspectives for Socialist Alliance and the DSP will need to be more concretely redefined in the light of (a) the June SA [national] conference outcomes and (b) the fight-back against the Howard government's new wave of attacks on workers expected over the next few months, and (c) the results of our party building campaigns."
With the benefit of hindsight, this paragraph of the report shows that Peter Boyle was still ambivalent about whether the attempt to convert SA into a multi-tendency socialist party was really a mistake. Maybe, if things went well at the SA national conference, and if the DSP could overcome its organisational crises in the short term, and if a real struggle developed against Howard's anti-union legislation – why, then perhaps enough new radicalising layers might come flowing into SA to make the MTSP sustainable after all. Then "building the DSP as our basic party structure" could be quietly forgotten about.
At that time, major disagreements had developed within SA between the DSP and the Non-Aligned Caucus (NAC). Some of the non-aligned SA members had grown accustomed to being courted and pampered when the DSP needed them to push the MTSP proposals against the ISO and other affiliates. Once the other affiliates withdrew from regular participation in SA, the NAC was no longer so important, and the DSP began to chafe at the more undemocratic procedures that had given the organised non-aligned members a de facto veto over SA decisions.
This dispute came to a head at the June 2005 national conference, at which the DSP easily defeated the NAC. The result was never in doubt, since the DSP had an absolute majority at the conference. This was achieved, not by dishonest means, but by the DSP simply ceasing to prop up the non-aligned members' authority. When DSP members voted for delegates who were the real builders and activists within SA, they voted for other DSP members. So the DSP's proposals for democratising SA's procedures– and thereby reducing the formal power of the NAC to something like its real influence– were passed.
But what the DSP majority leadership seemed not to have noticed about this "victory" was what it indicated about the real state of SA. Already at that point, the DSP made up the overwhelming majority of activists in SA. When, after the conference, most of the NAC left SA (doing so with feelings of considerable hostility toward the DSP), the DSP was left with the whole prize, but that didn't amount to much: itself and a periphery of people who identify as socialists to varying degrees but are not very active, or whose political activity is conducted outside the framework of SA.
Shortly before the SA national conference, a national trade union Fightback Conference was held in Melbourne, initiated in the name of SA. Drawing 350 militants from a range of unions, it was in many respects an inspiring event. Unfortunately, it proved to be the high-water mark of militant unionism in this period, not the beginning of a new tide. Over the subsequent period leading up to the 2007 federal election, the ACTU leaders were largely successful in channelling worker opposition to Work Choices into a "vote Labor" campaign. But this eventual outcome was not obvious in mid-2005, so the DSP majority leaders were able to pin their hopes on a coming upsurge. That is, they could claim that point (b) in Peter Boyle's report, quoted above, had created a new situation, one more favourable for SA.
In regard to point (c), the campaign to overcome the DSP's organisational crises, the results were similarly ambiguous, which is to say that they could be interpreted, by someone interested in doing so, to justify not changing the past mistaken line by very much. The financial deficit that threatened the very existence of GLW was overcome by a public appeal that raised an unprecedented sum, showing how well Green Left had won the support of a wide audience. But that successful appeal did nothing to overcome the causes of the crisis, which related to declining sales and declining financial contributions from DSP cadres, who were being called on to devote their time and money to another organisation.
Nevertheless, a majority of the DSP national executive accepted Peter Boyle's view that there were few or no significant changes required beyond the eight-point emergency program of the May national committee meeting. A minority argued that the DSP needed to do more than adopt organisational "fixes" to problems caused by the SA as new party perspective. It was necessary to correct the mistaken evaluation of the political situation and to acknowledge the sectarian mistake involved in trying to transform SA into a MTSP against the wishes of the other affiliates. Above all, correcting the mistakes of the past few years required resurfacing the DSP as a public revolutionary organisation. These were the initial divisions as the DSP opened the discussion period for its 22nd congress, held at the beginning of January 2006.
Left unity and revolutionary politics
For revolutionary socialists, unity is always a matter of unity for something, not an end in itself. Workers join a union to defend their wages and conditions; a union that doesn't do that is a waste of time. Different left organisations unite to organise a demonstration around some issue that concerns them all. Or they collaborate to support a left caucus in a union or maintain a campaign such as that in support of refugee rights. Sometimes when left organisations work together like this, they discover that their differences are not as great as they originally thought, and they may then go on to explore working together on other issues, with a view to eventually combining their organisations into one.
As originally conceived by the DSP, the Socialist Alliance had two aspects. First, it was a practical collaboration among the various small organisations to give socialism in general a louder voice in election campaigns (and to make it easier to overcome the undemocratic restrictions against small parties). Secondly, it was seen as a step in the direction of creating a "broad left" party. This is an algebraic formula that refers to a party that includes different socialist trends and individual socialists of no particular trend. It is what the DSP had in mind when it tried to turn SA into a multi-tendency socialist party.
For some people who identify with socialism, a MTSP might be, if not quite an end in itself, all that is needed to fight for socialism. That is, if you think that socialism can be achieved through a series of reforms legislated by the Australian parliament, then a MTSP seems enough: it just has to persuade enough voters to win a parliamentary majority, and then pass the necessary legislation.
The DSP of course never had such an idea about SA or any other form of broad left party. A MTSP was seen, not as the instrument to bring about socialism, but as a probable stage through which it would be necessary to pass in the process of bringing together the forces that will form the mass revolutionary party that can lead the overthrow of capitalism. In other words, none of the small socialist groups that exist today will grow until they become a mass revolutionary party. Rather, that mass revolutionary party will be composed of many elements, including not only many of the members of existing socialist groups but also much broader forces that will be pushed into socialist politics by their own experiences. And– as a general outlook, not an ironclad rule– it is likely that a relatively efficient course to the creation of such a party will pass through the stage of a broad left party: a formation in which revolutionaries coexist comfortably with socialists who are not yet revolutionaries because comradely discussion and common experiences of struggle are pushing both towards revolution.
But such a party can not be willed into existence; it requires an objective political environment in which there is a sufficiently widespread radicalisation to provide the broad party with a sizeable layer of active members. In the opinion of the minority, the DSP's chief mistake was the attempt to create a MTSP in objective conditions that were not suitable for such a party.
No, but yes
Minority and majority both endorsed a resolution that stated plainly that the DSP's attempt to turn SA into a new broad left party had "failed because the conditions to build the Socialist Alliance into a new party did not exist" and that these conditions would not come into existence until there was a new upsurge of working-class resistance to the capitalist offensive. If the conditions for building SA into a new party didn't exist, then it followed that the DSP should stop pretending that SA was a new party. And if SA could not now be a new party, then it was necessary to return to building the DSP as a public revolutionary party. But the majority refused to draw any practical conclusions from the evaluation that they had put their name to. On the contrary, they sought to continue the perspective of integrating the DSP into SA, only at a slower pace than originally envisioned.
The majority sought to justify this contradiction between premises and conclusions with a combination of tortured logic and loose terminology. Peter Boyle set the tone for the subsequent discussion when, in his draft report for the October 2005 national committee meeting, he argued that DSP comrades should not "confuse the absence of [the] objective basis to carry out our December 2003 integration perspective with the collapse of the political space for a new party of left regroupment built around our engagement with the new militant tendency in the trade unions".
There was no objective basis for integrating the DSP into SA as a broad left party– but the "political space" for such a party existed. It made no sense, but it didn't need to: the gobbledegook had the same function as a stage magician's diversions: while you are watching his/her movements and trying to figure out what they are for, the magician suddenly removes the silk scarf, and lo and behold, a flock of pigeons appears. In this case, listeners puzzling over Boyle's contradictory statements were suddenly presented with the pigeons: "our engagement with the new militant tendency in the trade unions".
The discussion prior to the DSP congress in January 2006 was the most voluminous in the party's history, and it ranged over many topics. But a constant for the majority was this argument that SA had to be maintained in some form in order to continue collaboration with the "militant tendency"– primarily the Workers First caucus in the Victorian AMWU and the activists around Chris Cain in the WA MUA. As Boyle put it early in the debate:
"If we rename ourselves the 'Democratic Socialist Party' at the coming Congress we will send out the signal far and wide that we are abandoning this specific new party initiative"– the proclaimed aim of transforming SA into a new party– "and we will pay a price for it. One part of that price is to risk squandering our historic opportunity to work more closely with important leadership elements in the militant trend in the trade unions. Socialist Alliance or a similar broad left party project is an essential supplement to industrial collaboration" with those leadership elements (i.e., Craig Johnston of Workers First and Chris Cain).
Doug Lorimer, a national executive supporter of the minority, commented on this position: "Stripped down to its essentials, what Comrade Boyle's argument amounts to is the claim that if we don't keep bullshitting to Craig Johnston and Chris Cain that we in the DSP regard the Socialist Alliance as 'the party we are building', they won't collaborate … But as Comrade Percy points out in his draft NC report, 'the surest way to alienate them big time, is if we bullshit with them'".
And it wasn't just bullshitting to militant trade unionists. The majority position soon had them bullshitting to themselves. Since it was clear that the DSP had, in its own name, been able to collaborate with militant unionists, including Craig Johnston and Chris Cain, before SA was formed, the majority argument began to shift. Increasingly, it focussed on the idea that the "political space" for a broad left party was actually becoming greater. The essential argument, which had variations when specifics were challenged, went that DSP members, working through SA, and the militant union tendency could together force at least some conservative union leaders to go further than they wanted to go and launch a real fight against Work Choices– that is, one that was more than a simple "vote Labor" electoral campaign. This could then spark a working-class upsurge that would provide the new forces needed to turn SA into a real new party.
But that perspective was completely unrealistic. The militant union current was too small and isolated to exert that kind of leverage. The twice-a-year ACTU protests were overwhelmingly ALP election rallies. So to maintain the dream of SA as a "new party project" (the term the majority eventually chose as an attempted compromise of the contradiction between the admitted lack of an objective base for a new party and the supposedly expanding "political space" for such a party), the majority had to convince themselves that the ACTU rallies were in fact evidence of a fight back against Work Choices that was beginning to escape ACTU control. By the time of the congress in early January, this self-deception had reached the point that a report for the majority by NE member Sue Bolton, shortly to be elected DSP assistant national secretary, declared:
"Although some sections of the social movements and the working class are demoralised about the potential to fight the government, there is also a significant section of militant unionists who are relishing the chance for a fight. It's not that they are cavalier about risking their unions in a fight, but that they recognise that for workers to be fully committed to unionism, they need to go through the experience of struggles. It's only through a struggle that unions will develop a more active and dedicated rank and file membership.
"This means that in Victoria at the moment, there are a lot of unionists who are preparing themselves and other activists in their unions for the possibility that they will be jailed– not to frighten people, but to prepare themselves for the level of commitment they will need to make to the struggle. Even in New South Wales, one of the unions told all of its organisers before the Christmas break that they couldn't continue as organisers unless they are prepared to go to jail. The union intends to keep on organising, regardless of the fact that most industrial action will be illegal, so it couldn't afford to have any organisers who aren't prepared to lead from the front and risk jail."
The same report also declared:
"Howard hopes that he has succeeded in bluffing and intimidating the union movement into not taking industrial or political action that breaks the anti-union and anti-terrorism laws because of the severity of the penalties. But in passing legislation that makes virtually all aspects of union organising illegal, it is possible that even some tame-cat unions may be forced by their members to ignore the legislation and take wildcat illegal industrial action."
Views like this are often characterised as "pipe dreams". But the DSP majority were not consuming illegal substances. Something else was at work.
What went wrong?
What caused a majority of the members of the DSP to vote for such obvious nonsense? Part of the explanation lies in the reluctance to abandon hopes. DSP members had put a huge amount of time, effort and resources into building SA, and there was an understandable tendency to resist the idea that all of that input had been, if not totally wasted, largely misdirected.
Another factor was that a considerable layer of DSP members had become comfortable with SA. The norms of membership activity in SA were much lower than in the DSP. For comrades who had grown a bit weary in the struggle, there was a real attraction in the idea that you could attend meetings every month or two instead of weekly, and that this was part of progress towards a mass revolutionary party. Furthermore, since SA was supposed to be a broad party and didn't make so many demands on its members, it was much easier to sign up new members than it was in the DSP. When Green Left became the paper of SA, that implied that its circulation was now a responsibility of SA; DSP members perhaps didn't need to take as much personal political responsibility for GLW sales as they had in the past. Going back to the old pre-SA ways didn't appeal.
But the main factor was a certain political logic that went out of control. When their main political activity was intervening in SA, or conducting other political activity wearing an SA "hat", they had to orient as members of a "broad left" party, not a revolutionary one. But Marxists understand that being determines consciousness: directly or indirectly, what we do determines what we think.*1 Over time, a growing layer of DSP cadres began drifting from a DSP consciousness to an SA consciousness. It began to seem sectarian to seek to build the DSP or to insist on sharp distinctions between revolutionary politics and vaguely socialist politics that were never clear about what is necessary to get to socialism.
The DSP leadership had been aware of this danger, at least initially. A report delivered on behalf of the national executive to the October 2002 national committee plenum stressed the inseparable ties between organisational practice and political outlook:
"Winning people to Marxist ideas intellectually is not enough to make an effective revolutionary organisation, revolutionaries have to be trained to be systematic champions of all the oppressed, professional agitators, propagandists and organisers. This regular work keeps the party program alive and allows us to win and train new revolutionaries. A lot of this is the work we do around the paper … We do this … because our entire collective experience confirms the real value of this approach.
"This regular revolutionary work also creates collective experience, traditions and continuity … [I]t creates a revolutionary activist culture that is essential in the process of accumulating revolutionary cadre.
"To really win people to a living revolutionary program we have to keep alive a revolutionary activist culture. So if our regular collective revolutionary work is eroded then our objective of winning more people to revolutionary socialism will recede accordingly. And if this happens those who say the DSP NE's proposal is one of liquidation will be proved right."
Ironically, given later developments, this report for the national executive was presented by Peter Boyle. Eight months later, at the July 2003 national committee plenum, he again had to warn of the liquidationist pressures created by the DSP's orientation to SA. The immediate context was a sharp decline in GLW sales and in DSP finances.
Boyle warned that these two crises were "not just a problem of losing activist culture and activist-accumulating tools by default or just sloppiness. There is an actual pressure within the Socialist Alliance as it currently exists to step back from activism, to retreat to more economistic political interventions, organisational liquidationism (and its political consequences), etc. It is also a pressure within the party. The more tired comrades and some of the less conscious ones may be influenced by these pressures. In some cases they may even become the main expression of such pressures".
The symptoms that produced these warning, it should be recalled, had appeared months before the DSP congress voted to integrate the party into SA– that is, at a time when the pressures of the orientation to SA were nowhere near as strong as they would later become.
Caught in a vicious circle
As already noted, when the other affiliates rejected the idea of transforming SA into a new broad left party, the DSP turned to the SA independents as the force to bring about the MTSP. When the independents proved far too few to fill this role and then the NAC split away, there was really only one way to maintain any appearance of SA as a viable project. That was for DSP to substitute for the missing forces in SA: for strained DSP cadres to do the tasks that, in a real regroupment, or a real broad left party, would have been shared with other affiliates or with the new radicalising layers that SA was meant to attract.
This substitutionism had already been acknowledged as "unsustainable" at the May 2005 DSP NC plenum, but it began really to run wild after the Fightback Conference and the 2005 SA national conference. Earlier, the substitutionism had primarily consisted of the DSP carrying the overwhelming burden of SA's organisational tasks. Now it became increasingly political. DSP members, in their political activity, would identify themselves, not as what they were, but as SA activists.
"Rebadging", as this substitution became called in the DSP internal discussion, had a strong tendency to become self-perpetuating. DSP cadres engaged in a political campaign would describe themselves only as members of SA, and this is how they would be identified in Green Left and generally in any other media coverage the campaign received. This was capable of creating an impression that SA was an organisation regularly engaged in worthwhile and interesting political activity. DSP members who mistook that impression for reality of course concluded that SA was "successful" in some sense, and that the minority's proposals were threatening a valuable political tool. And in their own political activity, they would therefore identify themselves with SA rather than the DSP, strengthening the illusions of those who thought that SA was a viable step towards a broad party. This in turn provided new arguments for why SA had to be supported by the DSP. The DSP majority more and more became caught up in chasing after their own illusions.
As the majority went deeper into this spiral, the DSP itself became less and less important. Its role and significance were seen to consist only in helping to build SA. So, two members of the national executive majority wrote in November 2005 that continuing to build SA as a "new party project … does not mean we are ignoring the need to look after the motor force of this project– the DSP and Resistance". The same writers continued: "We know that without the DSP, we will have absolutely zero opportunity of building something broader. This is one of the reasons we are keen to build the DSP– so that we can also build SA into something more party-like so that it can start to fill more of the political space that the ALP and the Greens (at least in the trade unions and other social movements) have left vacant". What had started out as a project to help a small revolutionary party grow a larger revolutionary party became an end in itself, one that reduced the DSP to a subsidiary role.
If anyone still doubted this, they needed only to look at the agenda for the DSP's 23rd congress, in January 2008. To minimise political debate as much as possible, the majority adopted a new procedure. After the congress had voted on two areas of contention– the opposing lines on what party we should have been building, and on Australian politics and campaigns– other reports and discussions were only on "implementation" of the adopted perspective, that is, what the organisation would actually try to do in the next two years. There were "implementation" reports on building Resistance and on Socialist Alliance. It didn't occur to anyone in the majority leadership that it might be useful to discuss the specifics of building the DSP.
Waiting for the upsurge
Some might conclude from the DSP's experience with SA that trying to build a broad left party is a flawed tactic, one to be avoided in all circumstances. But what it really shows is the danger of misjudging a political situation and then being unwilling to correct the mistake. I argued in the DSP written discussion in October 2005:
"The re-cadreisation campaign became necessary because we had thrown our cadres into a situation in which it was impossible to maintain our previous party norms. This was done in the belief that it would be possible in the months immediately ahead to transform the Socialist Alliance into a broadly based anti-capitalist party in which revolutionaries could operate as an internal tendency rather than with a public face. If the judgment of the opportunity had been accurate, then it would have been a correct political decision to try to integrate completely into SA, even though that involved a temporary disruption of norms and thus a mistraining of cadres– because, if the judgment of the opportunity had been correct, the disruption would have been temporary."
But the majority would not clearly acknowledge that mistaken judgment; some of them even explicitly denied it. For example, a majority member of the national committee from Geelong wrote in the discussion bulletin (the Activist): "Is there a political basis to progress SA into a new party? I think there is. If Howard persists in the attack on the CFMEU and we wind up with an MUA type dispute (it'll be different in content but perhaps similar in impact) then the positive conditions for a new party style formation would increase. Even if this doesn't happen, rebellion is brewing among large sections of the militant unions …
"I don't believe that we have any other choice at the moment but to keep on the path that we're on. If it means that we have to build two parties– then that's what we have to do."
Majority supporters were not often that blunt about junking the analysis and decisions of the May 2005 NC plenum. But the idea that rebellion was brewing in the working class, about to break out, was a frequent majority assertion. For example, one NE member wrote early in the pre-congress discussion:
"The labour movement (and with it Socialist Alliance) is faced with a challenge– will it rise to the need of opposition to Howard's attempt to redraw labour laws radically in favour of the bosses of this country, or will it submit to defeat? The cowardly statements of Combet and co. not withstanding, there is no evidence that the fight is over. This may well be a protracted fight also. We should not be quick to declare the fight over once the legislation is passed. While it may be uneven, perhaps initially confined to a few states, there is every reason to believe that the fight against Howard's 'reforms' on the ground could continue for some time."
Sue Bolton wrote (criticising a minority amendment that pointed out the ACTU's unwillingness to mount anything other than an electoral campaign against Work Choices):
"While it is true that the ACTU is doing its best to control the opposition to the new anti-union laws and channel it into a 're-elect Labor' campaign, the amendment is inadequate. It's inadequate because it doesn't acknowledge the struggle within the union movement over the direction of the campaign and it doesn't acknowledge the role of overwhelming public opposition to the legislation in putting pressure on the ACTU and the union leaderships for a serious campaign against the legislation."
A little while later, Bolton and another NE member, Pip Hinman, submitted their own amendment regarding a fight back against Work Choices. "The current trade union leadership has had to be pushed to organise a first, and then a second national protest, against the IR laws", it said. "… there has been mass working class support for a serious industrial and political campaign to resist these laws. Even after these laws are adopted, there will be a series of struggles around their enforcement. Some unions are determined that they will continue to take industrial action, even though it will be illegal and their members and officials can be jailed. We will have to fight side-by-side with the militant trade unionists in these struggles. There is every chance that some of these struggles could spark broader working class resistance."
"Our task in this emerging movement", they added, "is to work as closely as possible with these militant unionists to ensure that the ACTU/ALP forces don't cut short this movement and turn it into a 're-elect Labor' campaign".
It is true, of course, that there was widespread opposition to Howard's industrial legislation. But the majority seemed completely incapable of distinguishing between that sentiment and a mass movement willing and able to take the necessary political and industrial action. They couldn't tell the difference between occasional carefully controlled electoral rallies and a "brewing rebellion". They fantasised about preventing the "emerging movement" from "turning into" an elect Labor campaign, when that is what it was already.
The 600,000-strong ACTU rallies on November 15, 2005, multiplied the DSP majority's expectations. A week or two later, Peter Boyle printed this analysis in the pre-congress discussion:
"Nobody should dismiss that biggest-ever workers' protest on November 15 as a one-off matter. There were 350,000 workers protesting on June 30 and July 1. The scale of these two protests was only eclipsed by the one-million-strong turnout around the country in February 2003 against the invasion of Iraq. However that large turnout was a one-off, as much as we would have liked it not to be."
The same article included the following:
"Eventually, the plan by the ACTU leadership to keep the IR laws campaign of TV advertising and marginal seats electoral campaigns to help the ALP win the elections was significantly scrambled and we have had two mass worker mobilizations as a result. And now we are working to make sure there is another, probably in March when the laws will come into action. Of course, this will require a struggle against the conservative trade union bureaucracy and the ALP."
Boyle may have been technically correct that November 15 was the second ACTU-organised protest against Work Choices and therefore couldn't be a "one off". But the idea that November 15 represented an expanding movement that was escaping the control of the ACTU and ALP thoroughly misread the reality. The union bureaucracy and ALP did not oblige with a March mobilisation, preferring smaller rallies in June to urge workers to vote Labor to defeat Work Choices.
A few days after Boyle published his mis-estimation, Sue Bolton contributed more along the same line. "After November 15, it is rather ludicrous to say that there is no 'sustained campaign' against the IR laws. November 15 was bigger than June 30/July 1, despite the government advertising", she wrote echoing Boyle's argument that two rallies define a campaign as "sustained".
November 15, Bolton said, ought to revive confidence in mass struggle. The problem here was that November 15 was not a "mass struggle". It was mass rallies called to let union ranks let off steam and encourage them to vote Labor. Those in the union movement who were really struggling against Work Choices were a small minority.
But Bolton was too busy imagining "sparks" to notice such realities. "It is also important to note, that often when there is a mass campaign on one front, it can spark struggles on other fronts", she wrote. "In Qld in the mid-1980s, the solidarity movement with the sacked electricity workers, sparked a revival of the student movement on Queensland University, which our Resistance comrades later tapped into to build the anti-fees campaign. If the union movement keeps mobilising, could it help revive confidence in the student movement to resist VSU? We have to be open to the possibility."
In Bolton's hyped-up imagination, it even began to seem that Greg Combet might be forced into the role of unwilling militant:
"It is significant … that at the beginning of this year Combet argued against mass protests and industrial action, and belittled anyone who raised proposals for action. Now, in Combet's speech to the National Press Club and in the speech to the November 15 rallies, Combet is talking about the fact that almost all union activity is illegal under the Work-Choices legislation so unionists, including officials, will be jailed under the legislation and that he will have to stand on the front line if he expects other union officials to stand on the front line, and that he wouldn't be paying any fines."
Greg Combet, a bit more astute than Bolton was willing to give him credit for, soon made sure that the only "line" he would be standing in was the queue for the parliamentary trough.
Against the majority's self-deception, the minority presented a reasoned and sober analysis of what November 15 meant. For example, Max Lane, an NE member supporting the minority, wrote in the pre-congress discussion a few weeks after the rallies:
"The first thing that must be noted in any assessment of the Australian political situation and the significance of the huge November 15 ACTU rally in Melbourne and other rallies around the country is that these rallies occurred on the eve of one of the biggest defeats for the Australian working class, i.e., the passing of Howard's IR laws, with no significant amendments, especially to those parts of the laws that affect the operations of trade unions and collective bargaining.
"This fact cannot be denied or ignored. The working class has suffered a significant defeat. This follows upon the Howard government's capture of the Senate at the last elections and the easy passing of even more draconian anti-terror (i.e. anti-civil liberties) legislation at both state and federal level. It is on top of the ability of the Howard government to ignore the huge mobilisations against the war in Iraq in 2003.
"This sets the framework for all struggles ahead: they will be defensive struggles and struggles trying to recover from major defeats."
Lane went on to discuss how this reality related to the debate about SA:
"The question therefore arises: is there any evidence that such forces have now been set in motion by November 15, i.e. significant numbers of people wanting to join and help build a new class struggle mass workers party. So far there is no evidence of this. It has been reported that SA received 11 clip-offs in the aftermath of November 11. In Perth an SA activist training day built out of November 15 attracted three people outside of DSP members.
"The reports indicate that SA continues to attract small numbers of individuals but there are no new forces (large numbers of activists) mobilising and radicalising away from the ALP and in the direction of a new party. Indeed there is more evidence of people being organised to join the ALP rather than move away from it."
But the DSP majority were not having anything to do with reasoned analysis on this question. Enthusiasm for what had happened on November 15 somehow had to make up for– or cover up for– SA's stagnation. "There are a number of objective factors", Bolton wrote in the last pre-congress Activist, "which reflect that there is a struggle taking place– the sustained mass opposition to the legislation as evidenced by November 15 being almost double the June 30/July 1 mobilisation, the extent to which union activists are being mobilised to do campaigning outside of work hours, the number of public meetings and campaign events being organised, the pressure on local ALP MPs to be involved in the extraparliamentary side of the campaign, the preparations of the militant unionists to break the laws and prepare to be jailed".
Aside from the exaggeration about all the militants about to be jailed– a repeated theme in the majority's attempts to portray an environment in which SA could thrive– there was not really a disagreement between the DSP majority and minority about whether there was some sort of struggle against Work Choices taking place, but about how sustained and politically independent of the ALP it was, and in particular whether it was generating an increasing radicalisation of the sort that would be necessary to allow SA to develop into a broad left party. Merely to state the question is to understand why the majority didn't want to confront it.
In an attempt to avoid dealing with the minority's analysis, the majority began demanding that the minority declare whether or not it acknowledged this or that event as "good". A dialectical materialist analysis of the direction of motion was replaced by something like a primary school report card, awarding so many silver stars to particular aspects of the class struggle. Thus Bolton wrote in the article just quoted:
"NC majority comrades do recognise, that these bureaucrats are subject to mass pressure, and that it's a good thing, each time we force them into action. It was a good thing that the movement forced the June 30/July 1 mobilisations on the ACTU, and it was a good thing that the movement forced the November 15 mobilisations onto the ACTU.
"It was also a good thing that mass pressure forced ACTU secretary Greg Combet to say that he and other union officials would not pay fines for carrying out 'legitimate' union activity."
Bolton went on to deny the minority's charges that it was hinging everything on a predicted working-class upsurge: "The NC majority is not making any predictions about the union struggle, just as we didn't make any predictions about the anti-war movement. But we do have to recognise a movement when we see one before our eyes and throw ourselves into it".
The first sentence, taken by itself, sounds like a brazen denial of the obvious. As demonstrated above, the majority thought rebellion was brewing and would put new life into SA. But when you read the above two sentences together, it seems clear that Bolton was not deliberately telling an untruth. On the contrary, at least some of the majority leaders had convinced themselves that the upsurge, the "movement … before our eyes" had already begun.
Maintaining the self-deception
I earlier quoted from Sue Bolton's report to the DSP congress, held in January 2006. Based on the fantasies about the numbers of unionists preparing to march off to jail, the report proposed to intervene in the non-existent upsurge by launching a petition in the unions for the ACTU to call a mass work stoppage.
"The ACTU petition is not just for propaganda purposes", Bolton stated. "We want to build up enough pressure to get a national stoppage off the ground." She even went on to outline how the majority saw the "national stoppage" being called:
"There are plans for mass delegates' meetings in Melbourne and Perth next year. The mass delegates' meeting in Melbourne has been set for 29 March, the day the legislation will be enacted. If we succeed with our petition to the ACTU, that delegates' meeting could be brought forward and a national stoppage, or at the very least a Victorian stoppage, be on 29 March."
Moreover, Bolton reported, the ruling class was not inclined to allow the union movement to retreat quietly: "The biggest capitalists want to use a sledgehammer approach and smash unions early with the new legislation".
This perspective was to prove totally out of touch with reality, as the minority warned before and during the congress. Max Lane's counter-report to Bolton's report pointed out:
"… the prospect[s] for any short-term campaign to change ACTU strategy away from ALP electoralism towards a sustained mass action strategy are very poor. A mass action strategy is, of course, more than the use of the occasional mass rally and march as a public relations action … 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. Even those on the 'left' of the ACTU leadership, Doug Cameron and John Sutton, will not do anything to put the ALP's re-election at risk."
"The resistance to Howard's IR attacks will probably take a different form once the legislation is passed", Lane said, "with struggle more focused on specific workplaces, sectors and unions under attack by the bosses".
But although the majority's expectations failed to materialise, its leaders refused to correct their mistake. They could occasionally be forced to acknowledge that not much had happened yet, but they continued telling themselves that a big upsurge was just around the corner. At the May 2006 national committee plenum, long after the dreamed-of March 29 "national stoppage" had vanished without a trace, Bolton's political situation report was still talking about the big battles just ahead.
"The mood and size of the May Day protests in Queensland is a strong indication that there is a preparedness to mobilise on this issue if the union leaders put out the call to mobilise", she declared. However, even the majority leaders must have dimly realised that "the union leaders" had no intention of calling on workers to mobilise for anything more than the semiannual pro-Labor rally. So Bolton had to find something that could force conservative union leaders to act. She therefore continued, "The other noteworthy point about the Queensland May Day protests was every single contingent (left and right, white collar and blue collar) chanted throughout the march, and not just the vote Howard out slogans. This was not a passive crowd. It was similar story at the Gold Coast May Day march".
Workers were chanting on May Day! Quick! To the barricades!
Moreover, it appeared that the chanting in Queensland could be heard as far away as Sydney, for Bolton continued:
"There is a lot of pressure on unions from their rank and file members for more action. This is reflected by the pressure on the NSW left unions to come together to put pressure [on] Unions NSW secretary John Robertson for a June 28 mass rally in central Sydney."
But all this "pressure" did nothing to move Unions NSW, which went through with its plan to isolate the June 28 rally in Blacktown.
Bolton's May 2006 report pioneered what became a standard method for maintaining the majority's self-deception. When it became impossible to deny a fact that contradicted the majority line, it would be acknowledged – but then immediately followed with a fiction that hadn't yet been completely discredited. For example, in this report, Bolton admitted, "The problem is that the union leaderships haven't been prepared to ask workers to do much more than vote for the ALP in the next federal election …" But instead of drawing the obvious conclusion that the majority had been wrong in expecting a working-class upsurge around Work Choices, she continued, "so we don't know the capacity of workers in Australia to struggle. However, there are some positive indications that workers do want to struggle". But if union leaders don't want to struggle, and the workers are not prepared to break with their leaders, then their abstract "capacity" to struggle is not a basis on which to build a broad left party, or anything else for that matter.
In the same report, Bolton even managed to get both the admission of an unpleasant fact and its denial by a fiction into a single sentence: "The bureaucracy and the Labor Party are so powerful that there continues to be a huge fight within the movement in order to get any campaign action apart from 'voting Labor in the next election'". Here the fact that the ACTU and ALP dominated the anti-Work Choices campaign was countered with the fiction of a "huge fight" going on right then ("continues") to overcome their purely electoralist orientation.
Bolton continued this method at the October 2006 NC plenum in her report entitled "Resisting the Howard government's offensive".
"There is no doubt that many union leaderships, including from the more militant unions like the CFMEU are running scared", she admitted. "There are a number of militant leaders who continue to make defiant statements but when it comes to concrete proposals to defy the laws, there isn't any planning going on." So, although she didn't call attention to it, all the majority's earlier talk about militant leaders prepared to go to jail over Work Choices had turned out to be so much hot air. Moreover, Bolton also had to acknowledge a "shift in the balance of forces in the Victorian union movement" to the right– just the opposite of what the majority had been expecting for more than a year.
But instead of admitting openly that the majority had been proven wrong, she went on to revive a slightly modified version of its false analysis: "In many places they [the government and capitalists] have been able to implement the laws but not everywhere. And while many of the leaderships are running scared and putting all of their eggs into the ALP re-election basket, there is a considerable layer of militants who have not been crushed and want a blue. Some of the more progressive leaderships, even if they are trying to avoid the fight, are susceptible to pressure from the rank and file".
Ten months earlier, the majority had voted for a report saying that progressive union leaders were spoiling for a fight and that even conservative leaders could be forced into action by pressure from the ranks. Now, without any acknowledgement of a change, the majority line was that progressive union leaders didn't want a blue but could be forced into one by pressure from below. In both cases, the conclusion was identical: the campaign against Work Choices created an environment in which SA was a viable "new party project".
In her summary at the October 2006 plenum, Bolton stated:
"We can agree that:
"Yes, there has been a decline in industrial action.
"Yes, many employers have implemented the laws.
"There have only been a small number of disputes involving illegal industrial action (although there is more resistance than this small number going on).
"And yes, a lot of struggles are defensive."
These admissions should have been followed by an acknowledgement that the majority had greatly exaggerated the prospects for a union fight back against Work Choices. Instead, this time Bolton distracted attention from the facts with a completely irrelevant fiction: that the minority were "gleeful about the weaknesses of the movement".
By the time of the April 2007 NC plenum, either Bolton had rebelled at the idea of again carrying the can for the majority's industrial expectations or the majority leaders had decided that Bolton's credibility had worn too thin. The majority didn't schedule a specific report on union work or Work Choices, but NE member Graham Matthews, in his "Australian politics and campaigns" report, sought to explain away the majority's false perspective.
"Since the 2006 congress", Matthews declared, "the most consistent, largest and most far-reaching anti-government campaign has been the union campaign against Work Choices. This campaign has mobilised hundreds of thousands of workers nationally at all attempts– albeit that these attempts have remained too few, and that the numbers declined in 2006".
This obscured a crucial fact: the union campaign against Work Choices was not merely an "anti-government campaign". It was also, for the most part– and certainly in the major rallies– a pro-ALP campaign, part of the ACTU's efforts for the Labor election campaign. Matthews immediately went on to admit this in a back-handed and distorted fashion:
"The campaign against Work Choices in its various forms remains a central priority for the DSP. In spite of the significant turn of the campaign to crass Labor electoralism, the campaign continues to mobilise and draw new activists into activity."
Matthews was fortunate that no one from the minority was able to challenge him on when the "significant turn" to electoralism had taken place. In reality, the ACTU's anti-Work Choices campaign had been electoralist from the beginning; there was no "significant turn".
The majority leaders' pretense that the ACTU had "turned" the anti-Work Choices campaign into a Labor electoral campaign was evidently the only way they could find to avoid admitting that they had been completely wrong in their expectation of a union movement upsurge that would provide new forces for Socialist Alliance.
Matthews' report also had to admit a few realities about the anti-Work Choices campaign:
"The campaign undoubtedly lost momentum after Work Choices became law in March 2006. Pressure was also necessary to continue the push for mobilisation in 2006. Left unions lost the campaign to hold a protest early in year– around time of W/C proclamation in March. The NDA was pushed-back to June 28."
What this really meant was that the minority had been right in expecting the resistance to Work Choices to be small scale and defensive in 2006, and the majority proposal for a petition campaign and mass work stoppage in March had exaggerated both the objective situation and the influence of the DSP. But the majority couldn't admit that openly without also admitting that there was no basis for their SA as new party project line. Matthews' solution to this dilemma was a typical piece of majority evasion:
"From the beginning, we were under no illusions that the militant sections of the union movement would control the political direction of the campaign. But we argued, correctly, that we needed to be part of the fight, the better to join with the militants who did want to see a fight, to influence them and win them to our socialist politics, and to help push the struggle forward."
How to be "correct" when events have proved you wrong: proclaim your innocence of mistakes no one has accused you of making. Of course the majority had never said that militants would "control" the campaign politically, and no one had claimed that they did so. What the majority had said, and been proved wrong about, was that militants in the ranks would push conservative leaders much further than they wanted to go– some of them all the way into jail. Furthermore, the minority and majority had not disagreed about whether to participate in whatever fight there was in order to help push it forward and to influence the militants involved. The disagreement had been about whether that fight would be of a character to cause new layers of militants to join Socialist Alliance. Here again, the majority had been proven wrong: according to their own figures presented at this plenum, SA membership in the previous two years had declined by 30%.
'Significant leftward moving forces'
As noted above, the debate about the anti-Work Choices campaign was important because of what it implied about the environment for an attempt to build SA as a broad left party. The majority was desperately hoping for a working-class radicalisation around Work Choices to salvage the SA dream. At the DSP's 22nd congress in January 2006, Peter Boyle had characterised the differences between the majority and minority in these words:
"In the opinion of the national executive/National Committee majority … there are real and significant forces moving left-ward in the working class, forces that we are relating to, on a broad political basis, through building the Socialist Alliance as a new party project.
"However, the NE/NC minority has argued strongly that this political opening does not exist and that it is just an opening that we wish existed. That's the heart of our disagreement."
That was a fair description– one which the majority began trying to forget almost from the moment the congress concluded.
In reality, there were no leftward moving forces significant enough to revive SA. The handfuls of activists who were looking for ways to fight back against the conservative hegemony generally did not see any reason to move into SA. That is why SA membership was falling.
In his counter-report to the congress, Max Lane characterised the political situation in this way:
".. the conditions for the building of a broad left or mass workers' party still do not yet exist.
"In no sphere of activity can we identify evidence of new forces (i.e. large numbers of people) moving into sustained campaign activity, bringing forth new leaders, and breaking from the ALP. The conditions we face remain the same as those that we have faced over the last 20 years and which we have determined already are not the conditions that allow us to proceed beyond advocating, championing the need for a new workers' party towards building such a new party in the here and now. They are conditions, which can be described as:
"A continuing general retreat of the working class, suffering more defeats, but in the process seeing the forging of a constituency of people, angry at what they have been forced to give up, repelled by the direction that society is heading and seeking answers as to why it is happening and how the retreat can be halted and turned around. These people, this constituency, is made up of people whose politicisation and then radicalisation proceeds unevenly, provoked by different examples of injustice, occurring at different times, and is reflected in frequent rises and falls in levels of activity and levels of morale, semi-spontaneous mobilisation around a range of different and changing issues. They do not enter the political arena as a political force or forces with new leaders, but as individual activists, with irregular activity."
These layers, Lane pointed out, offered a revolutionary party an audience and potential new members– but the DSP was missing out because of its preoccupation with SA.
A series of reports on SA for the majority by Lisa Macdonald neatly illustrate the majority's ongoing self-deception. At the 22nd DSP congress, Macdonald was extremely optimistic about SA's immediate prospects:
"All the indications are that a more proactive approach to joining people– not simply relying on leaflet clip-offs as we've tended to do recently, but posing the question of joining the Alliance to everyone we come across in political activity– would reap many new SA members …
"… the report is proposing that we set SA joiner targets as part of our interventions in all mass mobilisations, especially the union movement actions, this year."
In fact, as we learned only in April 2007, when the majority finally released some year-by-year figures on SA, at the time of the congress, the SA membership was somewhere in its dive from 1015 (in March 2005) to 711 (in March 2006). And it went still further down. At the May 2006 NC plenum, Macdonald reported (without giving the 2005 figures for comparison) that SA membership was only 616!
But speaking for a majority that had forgotten the distinction between revolutionary optimism and self-deception, Macdonald assured the national committee that this shrunken membership was mostly a statistical illusion: a lot of memberships had lapsed two weeks earlier, on what had previously been a nationwide date for SA membership renewal. When these lapsed members paid their dues, all would once again be rosy:
"There are approximately 520 currently un-financial members who [DSP] organisers say will definitely rejoin SA when followed up."
So it was only necessary to "follow up" the recently lapsed, and 520 of them would "definitely" pay their dues and join the 616 existing financial members to put the SA total well over 1100. Except that it didn't happen. Six months later, in October 2006, Peter Boyle and NE member Paul Benedek wrote in theActivist, "… there remain 424 financial members of the Socialist Alliance who are not members of the DSP" and added that 34% of SA members were members of the DSP. If you do the arithmetic on that, it means that the membership of SA was only 642– so out of the 520 "definite" rejoiners, only 26, exactly 5%, had actually renewed their SA membership.
By the time of the April 2007 NC, the majority leaders presented statistics that SA membership in the previous month had climbed back to 717. Even if one takes the figures seriously, they show that SA had spent the previous year going nowhere.*2 There were no "real and significant forces in the working class" moving into SA.
Formation of the Leninist Party Faction
By the time of the DSP 22nd congress in January 2006, it became clear to the minority that the majority leaders could not be relied upon to evaluate the evidence regarding their line and therefore to correct it. Five NE members who supported the minority therefore issued a call for the formation of the Leninist Party Faction (LPF), and nearly all minority supporters subsequently joined it.
The word "faction" is not in good repute with many people, because it is mostly used to refer to the gangs within the Labor and Liberal parties that fight over the distribution of the spoils of parliamentary office. In a revolutionary party, factions are quite different. They may be formed when there is serious disagreement about the party's course. A faction is usually organised not just to coordinate presenting the views of the faction's members– that could normally be done through informal collaboration. A faction becomes necessary when the minority believe that the leaders of the majority (as a whole) can not be persuaded to change their course; the minority therefore seek to win both support for their views and a majority on the party's leadership bodies so that their views can be implemented.
There was a further important function emphasised from the beginning of the LPF. This was to ensure disciplined behaviour by supporters of the minority: a disciplined carrying out of the line that had been adopted by the congress.
People new to revolutionary politics might consider it strange that a minority would want to ensure the carrying out of a line that it disagrees with. But this is what that bugbear, democratic centralism, is all about. A party that is trying to change the world– as opposed to just trying to profit from it– has to figure out the most likely way to bring about the changes it wants. As far as those of us in the LPF are concerned, no one has ever discovered a better way of doing this than discussing whatever has to be decided, voting on it, doing what the majority voted for, seeing whether it works as the majority expected and then starting over again with the benefit of the new knowledge that what we have just been doing was a good, bad or partly good or bad idea.
So a central goal of the LPF was to ensure that the majority line would not be disrupted by supporters of the minority who didn't understand the need to give a real test to the majority line. We wanted the majority line to be carried out as thoroughly as possible. We thought that such a test would prove that the majority line was mistaken, but we would have been quite happy if experience had proved that the majority was correct, which would have meant that the Socialist Alliance was growing, attracting new members and providing increasing numbers of revolutionaries as members of the DSP. If both sides are willing to let an honest judgment of experience decide, this method can only take both sides forward (which then cease to be "sides", and the next disagreement might have a quite different line-up).
Because a faction is disciplined– it chooses its members and makes binding decisions by majority vote, subject only to the higher decisions of the party– it can require its members to do their best to implement the majority line. That is what the LPF did from the beginning. A circular from the coordinating committee of the LPF to members explained:
"The DSP's constitution sets out the organisational structure of the DSP, the rights and obligations of DSP members and the rules governing their functioning. All members of the LPF should familiarize themselves with these so as to act to the best of their ability in accordance with them. Members of the LPF should set an example to the party as a whole of how a loyal minority functions within a democratic-centralist party."
The document also noted:
"The basic approach that LPF members should take in the immediate period ahead is not to obstruct or be seen to obstruct (by arguing or voting against) the majority leadership's proposals for implementing their political line. LPF members on branch executives of course are within their rights to ask the supporters of the majority to provide clear guidelines as to how DSP branches are to implement the political line and the unprioritised, and often contradictory sets of tasks set out in the NE majority's congress reports. However, this should not be done in an aggressive or confrontational manner, or in a manner that can be portrayed by the majority leadership as attempting to reopen the debate over the political line voted on by the congress."
In this case, there was an additional complication, however. In the view of the LPF, the line of the majority was not capable of being implemented. The majority said that we could both build the DSP and build SA as a "new party project" at the same time. We said that was not possible, that the majority line would require one of the priorities to be dropped in order to deal with the other one. In this situation, we would certainly participate in whichever priority the majority line required at the moment, but it would distort the test of the line if LPF members were to intervene in branch discussions about how to carry out the majority line.
Therefore, the LPF generally took the attitude that if there was a discussion about what resources to put into what SA activities, LPF members should not intervene in the discussion and should abstain in the vote on such decisions, so that the majority could decide for themselves what their line required the DSP to do.
But instead of attempting to carry out and honestly evaluate their line, the majority leaders decided to deflect the LPF's criticisms by misrepresenting the very existence of the LPF as an attack on the DSP, despite the fact that they had recommended its formation.*3 Thus, in the first national committee plenum after the congress, Peter Boyle branded the LPF as a "hostile" force within the DSP. The LPF approach of not taking sides in discussions of how best to carry out the majority line and therefore abstaining on the vote was misrepresented, for more than two years, as a policy of "abstaining from party work".
'Not fully tested'
In addition to distracting attention by attacking the LPF, the majority sought to avoid a judgment on its line by pretending that it hadn't been properly tested.
Two majority leaders, Pip Hinman and Sue Bolton, ventured into print with this argument in early November 2005, two months before the DSP's 22nd congress, writing in the Activist:
"While building the Socialist Alliance into such a party [MTSP] has proved a more difficult and drawn-out process than we first imagined, the NC majority argues that this opening hasn't yet been fully tested out. It can only be tested out if we continue to be the leading force in building SA as a new party project."
This was a truly bizarre argument, given that it was put forward nearly three years after the DSP had formally made its turn to building SA as a MTSP, and six months after the consequences of that mistake had forced the DSP to halt the attempt to integrate itself and its resources into SA. If three years weren't enough time to discover that the objective conditions for "building SA as a new party project" didn't exist, the majority leaders must have been extremely slow learners.
The DSP had partially recovered from the crises it faced in May 2005 only because it had de facto withdrawn from doing much of anything in SA in order to focus on its own urgent needs. This was one of the bases for the minority's argument that the majority would not be able to carry out its line of simultaneously building both SA and the DSP, even though it proposed to "build" SA at a slower pace than in 2003-2005. In his counter-report to the 2006 congress, John Percy argued:
"Is the May NC emergency campaign enough? Not unless we address and correct the wrong political line that got us into the crisis. The line from the NC majority is: keep the wrong line about SA as a party, but push even harder on the party-building tasks.
"Firstly, we can't do both at the same time, it will be stop-start. The biggest problem with the emergency measures, which the NE majority is in denial about, is that they worked because SA went on hold. It's been on hold essentially since May."
In his report to the congress, Peter Boyle emphatically maintained the opposite:
"Our current party-building tactics involve building both the Socialist Alliance, as a broad left party project, and the DSP, as an independent revolutionary organisation that plays a leading role in the Socialist Alliance project. We can do this in a sustainable manner …"
The majority were quickly proved wrong on this, as can be demonstrated from their own admissions. For example, in Sydney a DSP branch conference in February 2006 adopted a long list of SA activities to be carried out in the coming months– most of which never happened. In August, the branch secretary, Alex Bainbridge, nonchalantly informed the members that this was because so far that year the branch had been implementing only the "DSP side" of the congress decisions. But nobody in the majority stated the obvious conclusion: that Boyle's congress claim that it was possible to build SA and the DSP at the same time was wrong, at least as applied to Sydney.
Two months later, at the October NC plenum, Boyle himself confirmed that this inability to build both organisations was a general situation:
"To a significant degree we have put SA on hold over most of this year, particularly in the inner-cities of Melbourne and Sydney. This may have been justifiable (as we sought to rebuild the DSP's cadreisation structures) but this is not testing the congress line on SA. Now it is time for a renewed push to test out our line on SA …" (my emphasis)
But Boyle was engaging in a sleight of hand here, muddling the difference between two quite different tests in order to obscure the fact that he had been proved wrong. The majority had claimed it was possible to build SA and the DSP at the same time. The test of practice had proved that line false. But Boyle turned his admission of this into something else, a claim that the majority's "line on SA"– the position that in the current situation it was possible to build SA as a "new party project"– had not yet been tested. While this claim was also false, given the history of the previous four years, it was not quite so obviously false as the first claim.
Six months later, the majority dream of building SA and the DSP simultaneously had come no closer to reality. In a report on SA to the April 2007 NC meeting, Dick Nichols admitted:
"Due to increase in dispersion and passivity of formerly more active SAers and the permanent press of our DSP-sustaining tasks Socialist Alliance political life in the larger cities has declined as formerly active SAers have been unable to find outlets for their interests within Socialist Alliance work."
Once again, it was an admission that "DSP-sustaining" activity and building the SA "new party project" couldn't be done at the same time. And once again, the majority leaders refused to draw any conclusion from this admission, refused to correct their mistaken line. And because there was no open attempt to correct the line, DSP branches continued trying, to varying degrees, to do the impossible: breathe some life into SA. Mostly this took the form of substitutionism: virtually any political activity carried out by a DSP member was rebadged as an SA activity. As a result, efforts to strengthen the DSP also lagged well behind what was necessary and possible. Nominal party membership remained stagnant, while levels of activity declined; by early 2007, only about half the members were selling Green Left regularly.
But while they wouldn't correct their line openly, the majority leaders changed it surreptitiously. At the very same NC plenum at which Dick Nichols admitted that sustaining the DSP meant that "active SAers" couldn't find any SA work to be active in, the party-building report delivered by Sue Bolton repealed the admissions of the previous 16 months' failures, including that shortly to be made by Nichols.
"The evidence since the 2006 DSP Congress", Bolton declared, "is that we have been able to recruit and develop new cadre, we have been able to continue with the Socialist Alliance project, and we have taken a lot of campaign initiatives. This indicates that we still have an influence above our size".
So, according to the new line, the DSP had spent the past 16 months successfully building both itself and SA. Bolton did not cite any of the "evidence" for this view, for the simple reason that most of the evidence showed the opposite. The previous statements by Bainbridge and Boyle, and the statement that Nichols would make a few hours later, were not retracted or corrected. Indeed, this plenum, after endorsing Bolton's fiction that things were going swimmingly for SA, went on to vote for Nichols' statement that "formerly active SAers have been unable to find outlets for their interests within Socialist Alliance work". Everything the majority leaders said was voted to be true, no matter how mutually contradictory.
Bolton continued from the above statement:
"However, it is undeniable that the lack of unity in the DSP has made it difficult to implement decisions from the 2006 DSP Congress across the board, and the lack of unity in implementing the decisions means that the line hasn't been fully tested."
So, despite her previous paragraph, it appeared that SA had not been such a success after all (Bolton would have been aware that Nichols was about to give a report on SA in which the biggest achievement of the previous 12 months was an increase of six in the number of financial members). Bolton here repeated Boyle's trick from the previous plenum, essentially saying that the inability to implement the majority line meant that it hadn't been tested yet, rather than that it had failed. It's as though your hot air balloon explodes and burns on its first launch, so you conclude that its airworthiness hasn't been tested.
But Bolton certainly wasn't going to blame the majority's hot air for the problem. "Lack of unity", for those not in the know, was code for the existence of the minority. And again note the dishonest rhetorical tricks. "Lack of unity"– the existence of differing views– somehow becomes "lack of unity in implementing the decisions" of the congress. So Bolton could conclude that the majority line, which in the previous paragraph she had declared a success but everyone knew was a failure, hadn't been fully tested.
Bolton's position was a denial of the possibility of democratic centralism. If differences within a revolutionary party mean that it's line can't be fully tested, then how can the party debate, decide and discover in practice whether the majority view achieves the intended goal? The majority's view here would mean that the party couldn't do much of anything unless it could first establish a monolithic outlook– which may be the belief of the majority leaders, judging from their efforts to exclude the minority from any role in the party.
In reality, there had been no lack of unity in action, at least from the LPF. There had been more than a little abstention from supporters of the majority, quite a few of whom were happy to vote for building SA as a new party project as long as they didn't have to go through the charade themselves. But there had not been much action in regard to SA, other than DSP members calling themselves SA whenever they were publicly involved in politics.
The tangle created by Boyle and Bolton was the result of the dilemma they faced. The majority line had failed because it was impossible to carry out. The majority leaders couldn't admit this; they had to say that they had been able to implement the line. But there were few or no positive results that could be attributed to the line, so saying that it had been carried out was logically a confession that the line had failed. Hence they had to claim that it hadn't really been implemented.
The majority's way out of the tangle was two-pronged: avoid real discussion and attack the LPF.
Flight from politics
As the discussion period for the 23rd DSP congress approached, the majority's behaviour since the previous congress had made it clear they did not want a discussion of the differences in the party.
Despite the unprecedented scope of the differences, the majority insisted on the minimum discussion time allowed under the DSP constitution. Both oral and written discussion were opened only the mandatory 90 days before the congress, i.e. on October 1. Written discussion closed at the end of the first week of December and oral discussion a week or so later (varying according to when branches met to elect congress delegates). So short a period for discussion was unprecedented in the recent history of the DSP, even in times when there were not major disagreements to be debated.
LPF member Eva Cheng researched the discussion period of eight previous congresses and reported her results in the Activist. The shortest oral pre-congress discussion was for the 16th congress, two and a half months. For the others, the oral discussion period ranged between five and six months (she could not find the figure for the 15th congress). For written pre-congress discussion, the period was less than five months only for the 16th and 21st congresses– four and four and a half months respectively. For the 17th, 18th and 20th congresses, the written discussion period was six months. Moreover, when three party members raised disagreements with the way in which the DSP was relating to the anti-globalisation movement, the next national committee meeting opened an immediate written discussion on this subject, allowing 15 months of written discussion on it before the 20th congress.
Shortly before the opening of the discussion for the 23rd congress, on September 24, the majority members of the national executive announced the formation of the Majority Resolution Faction (MRF) "for the purpose of organizing maximum support within the DSP membership for the general line of the Draft Resolution on Party-Building Perspectives for the 23rd DSP Congress (supported by a majority of National Committee members during the September 9-10, 2007 plenum) during the pre-Congress discussion period".
Despite its name, the MRF was not a faction in the usual sense of the term in a Leninist party. There is no indication that the MRF ever held a meeting of its members to work out how to organise maximum support from the membership: what articles to submit to the written discussion, what subjects to concentrate on in the oral discussion, what arguments of the LPF needed to be countered and in what way. Nor did joining the MRF put members under discipline to do anything that they presumably would not have done anyway, i.e. vote for the majority's party-building resolution. Coming when it did, the formation of the MRF served two purposes. One was to pressure the membership to line up in support of the majority before they had been exposed to a full discussion of the issues. Secondly, it gave the majority leaders a convenient indication of members who had perhaps not yet made up their minds and who therefore needed to be approached with horror stories about the LPF.
To appreciate fully the majority's flight from any discussion of the political disagreements in the party, a little understanding of the DSP's traditional approach to leadership and congresses is necessary.
It had previously been the normal procedure in the DSP for the leaders elected by the previous congress to present at the beginning of a discussion for the next congress an evaluation of the period since the congress at which they were elected: how well or badly the line adopted at the congress had fared, how well or badly the leadership had done in implementing that line, what unforeseen political events had forced modifications of the line, what lessons could be drawn from the experiences of the period that might help the party to form and achieve its goals in the next period.
This tradition was not an invention of the DSP, although the party observed it from its beginning. It was something we learned from the Fourth International when we were still part of that, and from the US SWP before its degeneration, and it can be traced back to the Bolsheviks. It is perhaps the highest expression of the dialectical unity of democracy and centralism: through this procedure, those given leadership authority by the party return that authority to the ranks, account for how they have used it and seek a renewal of their leadership assignment.
In the pre-congress discussion and at the January 2008 congress itself, the majority leaders simply ignored this fundamental obligation. At the opening of the discussion, the LPF presented a written evaluation of the two lines that were in dispute at the 22nd congress, and how events since the congress had largely confirmed the minority line and disproved that of the majority. The majority presented nothing remotely comparable, nor did they reply to the LPF's evaluation. On the issues in dispute, they were silent.
The majority leaders chose as their platform a single document, their resolution on "party building". Far from evaluating how the line of the previous congress had fared in the preceding two years, the document did not even explicitly mention that line. Indeed, the previous 16 years of the DSP's experience were summarised in fewer than 100 words. Virtually every statement in this resolution, which was quite brief, was a generality, often without even a time frame attached. For example, in regard to the "militant current" in the unions, on which the majority had hung so much at the previous congress, the resolution could only note that it had been involved in the 1998 (!!) maritime dispute and "the anti-corporate globalization campaigns". The resolution then continued, "The DSP has responded to this opening, recognizing our major challenge to root our party in the working class". Had the "militant current" been involved in anything else since 1998? The resolution was silent. Had the DSP "response" to it had any consequences, either positive or negative? Again, silence. Had anyone from the "militant current" joined the Socialist Alliance or the DSP in the last two years? Silence.
As with their refusal to reply to the LPF's evaluation of the test of events, the MRF leaders refused to respond to criticism of their resolution. Instead of political debate, they presented anecdotes or lists of SA members and what they did (or mostly didn't do) to build SA. The majority wouldn't discuss politics.
Although they were incapable of openly responding to the LPF's criticisms during the 2007 pre-congress discussion, the majority leaders did quietly make one change to their resolution. After the LPF pointed out that it didn't even mention the AVSN– a strange omission for people proclaiming their solidarity with the Venezuelan revolution– the resolution's authors edited in a single mention of the initials.
This shamefaced way of trying to correct unacknowledged political mistakes typified the majority. It was a symptom of how persistence in the false line on SA quickly corrupted the majority's politics in other areas.
In the case of Venezuela, the majority seemed sincere in their support for the Bolivarian revolution. There was no disagreement between the majority and minority about the importance of regular reporting on Venezuela in Green Left Weekly, organising brigades to visit Venezuela and learn about the revolution, protesting against US or other imperialist actions against the revolution and so on.
But building useful solidarity with Venezuela requires more than just good intentions. Solidarity that mobilises only the DSP and a few hangers-on in SA is considerably less than what is needed and possible– given a sincere approach to united-front actions and the building of a vibrant and independent solidarity movement.
Sadly, the majority, trying to maintain the illusion that SA was somewhere along the road to becoming a broad left party, something that should be the centre of whatever radicalisation was going on, had an almost instinctive aversion to real united-front activity: if people wanted to express solidarity with Venezuela (or Palestine, or unions under attack or whatever), then they should do it through SA. Organisations like AVSN that have the potential to mobilise really broad support are seen as potential competitors to SA. This is why the DSP treats AVSN as no more than a front, something whose name can be used when required but which should not have a life of its own. This was particularly evident at the start of 2008, when the majority made a point of not having AVSN stalls at campus O-weeks, threatening a number of LPF comrades with disciplinary sanctions for organising, or even inquiring about the possibility of organising, AVSN events.
The DSP majority's attempt to force Venezuelan solidarity through the very narrow channel of SA is particularly bizarre because SA, formally, doesn't have a very clear position on the Bolivarian revolution. In the early days of SA, when there were still organised tendencies other than the DSP involved, some of the affiliates, such as the ISO, were much less enthusiastic about the Bolivarian revolution, viewing it through their schemas about "state capitalism" and "revolution from below". So it was not possible to reach a united position for SA on anything more than opposition to an imperialist attack. One might expect that, after all the other affiliates had withdrawn, the DSP would allow SA to adopt a position on Venezuela closer to the DSP's own expressed position. This has not happened– possibly because that might undermine the fiction that SA is still some kind of attempt at regroupment, possibly because the DSP leaders really don't care that much and can't be bothered, but most likely because they fear that talk about revolution in South America and the desirability of something similar in Australia might frighten the remaining handful of independents who are the evidence of SA's "success".
Whatever the particular motives of the individuals concerned– and they are probably varied– the result of the SA infatuation is that the DSP is not creating the useful ongoing solidarity activities for Venezuela that most of its members would favour. This is an illustration of a point that the minority tried repeatedly to explain to the majority: that persistence with a mistaken line on SA would inevitably affect other areas of the DSP's politics.
I have already demonstrated above, in the section headed "What went wrong?", that the DSP entered the SA-as-new-party effort with a leadership conscious that dangers were involved. Relating to a new organisation that did not share the DSP's views on various questions would inevitably restrict the DSP's ability to present its own views on those issues. At least in theory, it could discuss these questions with SA members and seek to win them to its views. But having declared itself an "internal tendency" of SA, the DSP had renounced the right to present to the public those views it didn't share with SA. That might have been an acceptable price to pay for a short time if SA had been drawing in new layers of activists– if it had started to become in fact, not just in hope, a broad left party.
But that is not what happened: SA stagnated as the DSP plus a few hundred paper members and a tiny number of independent activists. It's true that DSP members can, for example, write an article in GLW that presents the DSP's view on some question. But such an article is never presented as a DSP view, and the author's political allegiance, if it is specified, is always given as SA rather than DSP. Readers might even think that the article expresses the views of SA. But if they like the views and want to do something about them, they will find themselves referred to an SA "branch" that doesn't exist; or if it does, either the members will not share the views expressed in the article or they will be DSP members who will recommend that the branch not take a position in order not to disrupt SA unity.
In this situation, where there were few or no independent SA activists with whom DSP members could talk seriously and whom they could try to win to revolutionary politics, DSP members began to forget those skills or, even worse, regard them as unnecessary or "sectarian". If there had been SA branch meetings of 30 or 40 independents plus three or four DSP members, a vigorous presentation of the DSP's views on Venezuela or any other question wouldn't have seemed out of place, because there would have been other views also argued for. Or if other socialist organisations had remained in SA, there could have been useful discussions and debates on a range of issues.
But even by late 2005, there was scarcely an SA branch meeting anywhere that didn't have a majority of DSP members among those attending, and this situation only grew worse in 2006 and 2007. Within the DSP, the majority were soon saying that SA members weren't attracted to branch meetings. And if SA independents don't come to branch meetings, which most of them don't, where else can DSP members meet them and talk about politics? Most of them also don't come to demonstrations, forums or whatever on anything like a regular basis.
Because SA was the central thing in the minds of DSP members, the DSP's politics became hostage to those of the independents: if they liked what a DSP member said, fine, but if they didn't, the DSP had to retreat. When the active independent members– those you have a chance to talk to– are outnumbered by the DSP by six or eight to one, there is great pressure not to offend one of these precious building blocks of the "broad left party project" by vigorously arguing a political position they disagree with.
So, bit by bit, the politics of the DSP began giving way to the more limited positions of SA. This tendency was accelerated by rebadging– DSP members substituting for non-existent SA activists by calling themselves SA rather than DSP in their political activities. When posing as SA members rather than DSP members, they of course have to present the politics of SA, not the DSP.
And those two politics are not at all the same. SA does not support the politics of the Cuban or Bolivarian revolutionary leaderships. It does not have a Marxist position on revolutionary work in the trade unions. It does not aim at the creation of a working people's government as a transition to the dictatorship of the proletariat. It does not understand that the ALP is a bourgeois party operating within the labour movement. The DSP is– or was before it turned into the "motor force" of SA– a Marxist party whose goal is socialist revolution. SA is not.
The Marxist name for the process the DSP has been going through is "liquidation". It refers to abandoning the struggle to construct a revolutionary socialist party. While the first "liquidationists"– in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party of the early 20th century– consciously decided that a revolutionary party was no longer needed, liquidation doesn't have to be intentional. For most of the DSP majority, the process has not been a conscious one, but rather the unforeseen outcome of attempting to maintain the SA fiction. It has come about through the interaction of mistaken organisational and political decisions: the hiding of the DSP behind the SA mask leading to a drift away from DSP politics, political misjudgments leading to a further burying of the DSP within SA.
It is not surprising that some of the earliest signs of a drift away from revolutionary politics came in connection with trade unions and the campaign against Work Choices. In general in an imperialist country like Australia, trade unions are one of the most difficult arenas in which to conduct revolutionary work, because it is in trade union politics that conscious and unconscious agents of the ruling class exert direct pressure on the working class. Hence revolutionaries in this area need both a clear and firm strategy and great tactical flexibility.
As has already been indicated above, the fixation on the anti-Work Choices campaign as the saviour of the SA dream largely destroyed the DSP majority's tactical flexibility. In all circumstances, the tactic was to push for another mass rally as quickly as possible, and if the ACTU didn't look like calling such a rally, circulate a petition for one in union ranks. This tactical rigidity in turn tended to further modify the majority's political outlook. It began to see signs of success that weren't really there: either the union bureaucrats were feeling the pressure from the DSP's petition and the mood in the ranks, or some of them were inclined to fight back to some extent, fearing that the anti-union legislation might eventually put them out of a cushy job.
This sort of illusion was displayed in the version of the resolution on the DSP and SA submitted by the NE majority for the discussion leading up to the 22nd congress. Among other things, the resolution stated:
"Activists in other social movements are beginning to understand the strategic need to defend the trade union movement– the last remaining social movement in this country with any ongoing mass organisation. However, the question is whether the current trade union leadership has the will to organise a sustained and united mass campaign that is capable of defeating the new anti-union laws."
This second sentence was the most utter nonsense, something that its own authors would have laughed at only a year or so earlier. Contrary to everything the DSP had previously understood about the character of the ACTU leadership, they now stated that the DSP didn't know if ("the question is whether") the current union leadership wanted ("has the will") to organise the kind of campaign that would have been needed. In effect, it held open the possibility that Greg Combet was really a class-struggle militant at heart, if somewhat mistaken in his tactics.
This was not merely a careless formulation. The NE minority proposed changing the passage, but the majority insisted on submitting it unchanged to the national committee. In the pre-congress discussion, majority leaders defended the refusal to accept the minority's amendment. But supporters of the minority continued raising the point until it became too embarrassing for the majority leaders. After weeks of clinging to agnosticism about the ACTU's intentions, like a shipwrecked sailor clinging to the flotsam and jetsam of the good ship Dreamboat, the majority leaders decided on a tactical retreat. They didn't admit a mistake, of course, but in a joint written contribution, Pip Hinman and Sue Bolton suggested "reworking sections" of the resolution "to make it sharper". When the "sharpened" section appeared, it claimed that the June 30-July 1 demonstrations had "put the Howard government on the defensive" and that November 15 "took the struggle to a new stage"– replacing one bit of pie-in-the-sky analysis with another.
It was noted earlier that the majority thought that the November 15 demonstrations had put the wind in their sails. This idea only encouraged them to blur even further the difference between revolutionary unionism and bureaucrats putting on a show to aid the ALP's election campaign. Green Left's coverage of November 15, while excellent in many respects, also had a serious political omission, as Max Lane pointed out in the Activist. While GLW had reported "Combet's statements that he would refuse to pay fines and that the ACTU would continue the fight until victory", it did not point out that all of Combet's specific proposals for workers to get active involved ALP electoral activities. Also "missing from this issue of GLW", Lane pointed out, "is any explicit critique, even in summary form, of the politics of Combet's speech. i.e. that the ACTU remains totally in the framework of electing the ALP and supporting its IR agenda and did not make any proposals or projections about future mass actions or mobilisations at all".
Lane concluded by asking whether this political lapse was "a consequence of wanting to present a picture … that the ACTU and majority of the trade union leaderships are prepared to wage a real fight for workers' rights rather than a 'fight' to get the ALP elected and implement the ALP's IR anti-worker agenda? Or was it just the result of comrades writing under pressure? Hopefully it was only the latter".
While I am sure that Max Lane's hope was sincere, he can not have been very optimistic that it would be met. And in fact, the majority declined to take the proffered face-saving way out by saying: "Yes, we were just too rushed getting all the other coverage in". Sue Bolton, the author of the main GLW article on Combet's speech, wrote a long reply to Lane defending the failure to tell GLW readers that Combet wasn't going to do any of the militant things he claimed he was going to do. (This pre-congress article is quoted from above in the section "Waiting for the upsurge".)
Another clear indication of the watering down of the DSP's former politics in the trade unions was provided in the March 19, 2008, issue of Green Left Weekly. This was in the column "Our common cause", which explicitly presents the views of the Socialist Alliance. This particular column was "abridged from a speech to the February 24 Victorian state conference of the Socialist Alliance by Geelong Trades Hall Council secretary and [Socialist A]lliance member Tim Gooden". Although GLW didn't say so, Gooden is also a member of the DSP national committee. In this column, Gooden and GLW tossed out the window the DSP's long-held position on the Australian arbitration system.
The Program of the Democratic Socialist Party points out that the particular circumstances of Australia in the second half of the 19th century allowed workers to win "comparatively high wages. Within the emerging labour movement, this strengthened the false belief that the capitalist state could be used to serve workers' interests. This liberal illusion was most strongly expressed in the demand of the trade unions for the establishment of state arbitration courts". The program goes on to argue:
"The trade unions cannot effectively defend their members' interests unless they are independent of the employers, capitalist parties and the capitalist state. Genuine independence of the trade unions requires: …
"Opposition to control of the unions by institutions of the capitalist state. The Australian union movement has long been subordinated to the capitalist state through the system of compulsory arbitration and industrial courts. This subordination has been actively supported by the reformist trade-union officialdom, which peddles the liberal illusion that these capitalist institutions are socially neutral and can be used by the workers to advance their interests. The struggle to free the unions from the control of the capitalist state is thus inseparable from the struggle against the class-collaborationism of the union bureaucracy."
And that program advocates further:
"In a society based on the exploitation of wage labour, the most basic right is that of workers to withdraw their labour. Workers must oppose all attempts to restrict their freedom to strike, whether these attempts take the form of legislation or agreements negotiated by the union bureaucracy with the capitalist state. It is necessary to struggle against no-extra-claims provisions, compulsion to provide prior notifications of strikes, compulsory arbitration, fines and lawsuits against unions, strike ballots imposed by the capitalist state, restrictions on the right to organise pickets, etc."
That would seem fairly clear. Belief in the arbitration system is partly based on "liberal illusions" in the working class. It is part of the mechanism by which trade union bureaucrats subordinate unions to the capitalist state. Unions need to fight against compulsory arbitration just as they need to fight against other restrictions and attacks by the capitalist state.
But Gooden's column did not breathe a hint of that attitude. Instead, it trotted out the tired old metaphor of bourgeois apologetics, in which various organs of the state are "umpires" of the class struggle:
"Anyone of sporting mind knows exactly what the role of the umpire is. Two sides in competition, the umpire makes a decision. Yes you can appeal later, but the fight goes on until the game is finished and you have a winner.
"I grew up with an understanding that the industrial umpire was formed by the 1904 Arbitration and Conciliation Act and the formation of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC). The umpire was a part of the judiciary. You couldn't sack them and you couldn't influence them– in theory. You could be fined for protesting against them just as the same as any other court of law. Of course governments would stack the commission with like-minded people, which can change the nature of the decisions."
Unfortunately, Gooden went on in embarrassing explanation, both Liberal and Labor governments have been shifting control of industrial regulation from the "judiciary" to the public service. "The old system was not very good. But under Labor's proposed new industrial relations system, the 'independent umpire' will in fact be far less independent then ever before."
Members of the majority made a show of indignation when we characterised SA's program as "left social democratic". Gooden's appeal for a more "independent" regulation of unions by the capitalist state "umpire" would be rejected as too right wing by serious left social democrats.
The liquidationist logic of the majority line soon emerged also in regard to the DSP's international relations. For many years, the DSP has had close ties with the People's Democratic Party (PRD) in Indonesia. In July 2007, the PRD suffered an unfortunate split in which a majority of the central committee arbitrarily expelled (by voting that those with differences should organise separately) a minority who had voted against a proposal to seek a fusion of the PRD's electoral organisation, called PAPERNAS, with a small Islamic party in order to be able to participate in the country's 2009 elections. (Undemocratic election laws prevent PAPERNAS from standing under its own name.)
It soon became evident that the PRD CC majority had made a major turn to the right, elevating parliamentarism above its previous mass action strategy and displaying a willingness to water down its program if necessary to win a few seats.
This put the DSP majority leaders in an awkward situation. They had long sought to imply that SA was part of an international trend toward the construction of broad left parties that included PAPERNAS, a left unity initiative of the Labour Party Pakistan and, until its implosion in 2006, the Scottish Socialist Party. If they were now to acknowledge that the PRD CC majority had succumbed to parliamentary illusions, some of the bad news might rub off on SA. On the other hand, they didn't want to be seen to endorse the PRD CC's turn to the right.
Their solution to the dilemma was a pretended neutrality that in reality supported the PRD CC majority, and the attempt to suppress any discussion, or even knowledge, of the Indonesian events within the DSP (see below). The majority's opportunist line regarding SA had gone international.
The dialectic of the majority's organisational and political liquidationism proceeded all the faster because most of the majority were only dimly, if at all, aware that it was going on. Inevitably, however, some of the liquidationist logic began to be expressed more or less openly. Here I will discuss just a few of the more significant revisions of Marxism introduced by DSP majority leaders.
SA as permanent tactic
In the course of the debate, the majority advanced at least three different versions of what SA was: a step toward regroupment, a MTSP or broad left party and a "bridge" to the DSP. None of these descriptions any longer corresponded with reality, although SA had been launched as a modest step towards regroupment. But while these views of what SA was became predominant at different times, majority supporters could and did switch between them to justify continuing with the SA "project". For example, if it was pointed out to a majority supporter that SA could no longer be considered a regroupment project, since no organisations other than the DSP were involved in it, the answer might be that SA was useful in drawing people closer to the DSP. If it was pointed out that involvement in SA had not at all increased the rate of recruiting to the DSP, the majority would reply that seeking to build a broad left party was an essential part of revolutionary strategy. If the minority said that a broad left party was a tactic, not a strategy, and that the objective situation was not ripe for one now, the majority might reply that SA had to be maintained for its "unity dynamic". (To further confuse the majority argumentation, SA was sometimes also described as a "bridge" to a future mass revolutionary party– what it was hoped that the broad left party would develop into.)
In short, the majority had decided that the SA tactic was to be continued no matter what. Reasons for doing so were summoned up as required, without any concern for consistency or reality.
The view that SA was a tactic for all times and all places began to be expressed fairly early in the debate. For example, in a pre-congress discussion article in October 2005, Sue Bolton wrote:
"Any revolutionary party worth its salt has to chart a course of both recruiting directly to itself, as well as an orientation that can win people who are looking for a political alternative to Labor (and in some cases the Greens, for disenchanted Greens members) to a class struggle workers' party, even if it is not yet revolutionary."
Here, the tactic of organising a broad left party is one that is mandatory for "any revolutionary party": the tactic is not only permanent in time but also universal geographically, applying everywhere.
Only four paragraphs further into the same article, Bolton attempted another justification for the SA orientation. Referring to people disillusioned with the ALP, she wrote:
"The problem is that without a political bridge which is taking embryonic steps towards developing a workers' party, the majority of these people become cynical or join the Greens. A small number join the revolutionary socialist organizations. But a significant number, especially in the trade union movement but other social movements, get repeatedly drawn back into the orbit of the ALP when the Howard government makes its next attack."
Amusement at the metaphor of a bridge taking embryonic steps should not conceal that Bolton here combined two of the arguments for the majority line. First, SA was to be a "bridge" to the DSP, or at least to some location distinct from the ALP and the Greens. Second, it was also supposed to be a move towards "developing" a workers' party– i.e. a broad left party. But SA was and is neither of those things, and pretending that it was only further eroded the DSP's politics.
An even more confused attempt to universalise the SA tactic was presented to the party in October 2006 by Dave Holmes, a member of the DSP national executive. In an article in the Activist, he jumbled together Trotsky's Transitional Program, transitional demands and what Holmes called "the transitional approach to party-building".
He began by posing the question: how can a small revolutionary party grow into the mass party that is needed? He then declared, "The transitional method is extremely relevant here".
This "method", Holmes informed his readers, had been used by Marx and Engels, Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Without citing any examples of this usage, he rushed on to announce that Trotsky had given this "method" a "very explicit character". This "explicit character" was then demonstrated with a long quotation fromThe Transitional Program, in which Trotsky explicitly said nothing at all about a "transitional method" but explained in some detail the nature of transitional demands. This would seem not to have taken Holmes and his readers any closer to an understanding of a "transitional approach to party-building" or a "transitional method", and, indeed, Holmes concluded the section by suggesting that he was talking only about the development of transitional demands:
"The 1938 Transitional Program is a powerful document and a great many of its ideas and even formulations have been incorporated into our program; but 70 years later we have to deal also with new issues and thus we have also developed new demands, even while using the same transitional method."
Of course, if one wants to use "transitional method" to describe the working out of transitional demands appropriate to a given situation, there is nothing wrong with doing so, provided the meaning is clear. But Holmes had something else in mind: his "transitional method" had to provide at least part of the promised explanation of "the transitional approach to party-building". And at this point he was dangerously close to producing nothing more than the statement that "the transitional approach to party-building" consists of using "the transitional method" to work out new transitional demands. Aside from its banality, such a statement would have taken Holmes not a step closer to finding a justification for the SA tactic.
He therefore set out on a detour (no doubt he would call it a transitional one). Green Left Weekly, Holmes informed his readers, "is a transitional vehicle" (his italics) because it can project DSP politics "to broader layers than a purely party newspaper could possibly do".
GLW s a newspaper that was effective at presenting DSP politics, before DSP politics started being hidden behind the Socialist Alliance. Its officially non-party status made it easier for readers to identify with it, and made it easier to sell. Consequently, GLW was financially viable, whereas its predecessor, Direct Action, had ceased to be so. But to imply that this made GLW more "transitional" than DA is only to obscure and devalue the meaning of "transitional".
Both papers were transitional in that they sought to persuade radicalising people to make the transition from opposition to the conditions of life in capitalist society to seeing the need to join and build a Leninist party. GLW was aimed at a broader audience than DA, but not because we had suddenly discovered new layers of radicalising people who could be won to Marxism. We made the change because the numbers who could potentially be won to Marxism were too small to support a weekly newspaper. A paper that was adequate to the DSP's needs would also have to appeal to another audience, one made up of people who were green and left but not at all potential members of a revolutionary party in any time frame before a major upsurge of the class struggle.
The change from DA to GLW was absolutely necessary. Indeed, the choice was not between Green Left and Direct Action but between Green Left and no paper, or at least not a weekly one. But because of the nature of the forced change, GLW was arguably less transitional, devoting less of its content to winning readers to a revolutionary party.
The change was, as Holmes himself acknowledged in his article, a "concession" forced on us by the objective situation. So when Holmes described GLW as more transitional than DA, he was introducing a new meaning of "transitional".*4 Whereas Marxists have previously used the term to describe a series of demands that can take workers or their allies from their present consciousness to a consciousness of the need for revolution, for the DSP leaders, "transitional" now means something that can take people from their present consciousness to buying a left newspaper fairly regularly and, perhaps, voting for socialists every three years (or at least giving them second preference after the Greens). This is a meaning that fits in very well with the DSP's SA line.
Having thrown the revolutionary content out the window of his "transitional vehicle", Holmes now needed only to draw some kind of "transitional" link between the SA orientation and something in the DSP tradition, for the sake of those members who still had a nostalgic attachment to revolutionary politics. He chose to use Trotsky's position on the call for a labour party in the US in 1938. After quoting Trotsky's explanation that the mass working-class radicalisation in the US was not flowing directly into the revolutionary party because of the latter's small size, Holmes declared:
"This explanation of why the labour party tactic is required is a striking parallel to our own situation. Here too the crisis of capitalism (and the wretched ALP) develops immeasurably faster than the revolutionary party (the DSP). A few people will be willing to directly join us but hundreds and thousands will be willing to join a broad left, socialist party– if we can reach them. This is the fundamental idea behind the Socialist Alliance project …"
This is even more ridiculous than the majority nonsense about the union leaders who were preparing to go to jail to defeat Work Choices. A "striking parallel" between the US in 1938 and Australia in 2006?
(Of course, if one takes a sufficiently long-range view, it is possible to find parallels between chalk and cheese. There is a striking parallel between conditions on Earth and on Mars: both receive solar radiation as they circle the sun and radiate some of it back into space.)
Holmes bases his "striking parallel" on the fact that the revolutionary party is smaller than it needs to be and that the "crisis of capitalism" is developing faster than the revolutionary party can grow. This has been true in Australia since at least the middle of the 19th century.
Moreover, the "crisis of capitalism" needs to be understood and not merely tossed off as handy rhetoric (in the passage which Holmes quoted, Trotsky referred to "the decline of capitalism", not a "crisis of capitalism").
A crisis is a turning point or potential turning point. In a global, historical sense, capitalism has been in crisis since the development of imperialism: the emergence of imperialism was a product of the fact that capitalism had outlived its progressive social role of taking humanity beyond feudalism; from that point (if not from the Paris Commune) humanity as a whole had the choice of going forward to socialism or increasingly sinking into barbarism. That fact obviously does not mean that it is possible to overthrow capitalism in any country at any time. There are also more conjunctural crises in which capitalism in a given country can be overthrown or severely weakened. Moreover, such conjunctural crises are not just crises in general. They come in different forms: economic crises, political crises, social crises, diplomatic crises, military crises, ethnic/nationality/racial crises, ecological crises, combination crises. And all of these forms of crisis have sub-categories: an economic crisis may be one of overproduction, over-capacity, lack of competitiveness etc.
What Marxist revolutionaries are most interested in, of course, is a crisis of bourgeois rule, which is another name for a revolutionary situation– when the bourgeois leaders lose authority with the masses and lose confidence in themselves. This is one variety of political crisis, but there are others that offer the working class real but less dramatic opportunities. The events around the sacking of the Whitlam government in 1975 were a political crisis, but they did not constitute a revolutionary situation.
In 1938, the capitalist world was still bogged in its biggest ever economic crisis. This had produced a crisis of inter-imperialist relations, which would soon explode into world war, and a political crisis of varying degrees in different countries, which led to results as varied as fascism, popular front governments and civil war.
The United States in 1938 was not in a revolutionary situation, but it was experiencing a mass working-class upsurge that had created the CIO and a form of political crisis for which I don't have a convenient name but which involved a growing awareness in the working class that the Republicans and Democrats were equally parties of the bosses and that workers needed their own party to represent their distinct class interests.
How does that situation compare with the situation in Australia 70 years later? Has the Australian working class been experiencing a decade of depression and unemployment? Has there been an upsurge of working-class struggle creating new militant unions and giving the working class confidence in its ability to fight and win? Are meetings of union militants passing motions calling for a new party to represent the working class? In the passage from Trotsky that Holmes quoted, Trotsky wrote, "In a mass meeting 500 would agree on the need for a labour party, only five would agree to join our party". Pursuing his "striking parallel", Holmes wrote that "hundreds and thousands" would join SA. In reality, hundreds were leaving it.
Marxism as ‘hypothesis’
The DSP majority's SA dream was not conditioned solely, or even mainly, by the independents who remained after the other tendencies withdrew. The majority were adapting to a much broader attitude that has been widespread in the left since the collapse of Stalinism– a feeling that there must have been something wrong with Marx and Engels' ideas.
This kind of environment in the international "broad left" has had an inevitable influence on those who are trying to construct a "party project" out of a not very broad "broad left" in Australia. They don't want SA to appear "narrow". But SA no longer has any organised tendencies in it aside from the DSP, so it falls to the DSP to put on a show of broadness, within SA and to the outside world, even if that means expressing ideas that are contrary to the DSP's own beliefs, or what used to be its beliefs.
One can agree or disagree with particular conclusions from Marxism, or about Marxism as a whole. But what Marxism is, as Lenin explained it, is a set of interrelated scientific doctrines covering three areas: social development (historical materialism); the laws of the development of capitalism; the working-class struggle for socialism. It was therefore alarming when a prominent DSP majority leader began publicly questioning the scientific character of Marxism.
Commenting on a former Marxist's explicit renunciation of Marxism, Peter Boyle endorsed part of the former's argument on the Green Left internet discussion list in December 2006:
"I would agree that while Marxism has stood many tests about its value as a theory to explain capitalism (and hence to help those in struggle [against] it) as a theory of socialist revolution it still remains a hypothesis … The question really is whether the movements struggling against capitalism should use the Marxist theory of socialist revolution as its working hypothesis and its best available theoretical basis for its political program."
Boyle here explicitly rejected the scientific character of the Marxist doctrine on the working-class struggle for socialism. His words declared the Marxist view of proletarian revolution to be, not a scientific doctrine, but merely an idea to be investigated– perhaps experience will confirm it, perhaps not. (A "working hypothesis" is more doubtful than a "hypothesis". According to the definition of "hypothesis" in the Macquarie Dictionary: "a proposition (or set of propositions) proposed as an explanation for the occurrence of some specified group of phenomena, either asserted merely as a provisional conjecture to guide investigation (a working hypothesis), or accepted as highly probable in the light of established facts". That is, a "working hypothesis" is a mere conjecture, something that can be sucked out of anyone's thumb, a "what if" to assist research.)
One might have hoped that this was merely a hasty, careless remark– particularly since it appeared to ignore major historical events, such as the Russian Revolution, that confirm the Marxist theory of social revolution. But Boyle returned to it a month later, at the DSP national educational conference in Sydney in January 2007. There, he delivered a feature talk of the conference, entitled, "What is Marxism?" In response to a question from the audience at the conclusion of his talk, Boyle again referred to the Marxist view of socialist revolution as a "working hypothesis". When the talk was printed in the Activist, Boyle edited the remark into the text and expanded on it.
Marx and Engels, he wrote, "bequeathed foremost a method to scientifically understand social development and a theory of scientific socialism that would remain substantially a working hypothesis until the actual revolutionary transformations eliminated class on a significant world scale".
In a subsequent issue of the Activist, I explained the difference between a hypothesis and a scientific theory, and cited Marx, Engels and Lenin on the scientific character of Marxism. Chris Slee, a long-time member of the DSP, wrote two articles in the Activist trying to defend Boyle's words, mostly by quibbling about the meaning of "hypothesis". Boyle himself neither retracted nor defended his view that socialist revolution is a "working hypothesis". I do not know if he has repeated it. But the DSP has a national secretary who has publicly declared that proletarian revolution is an idea that might have something going for it, or might be a pipe dream. How's that for "broad"?
A failure in handling differences
An important test of the leadership of a revolutionary party is how well or badly it handles differences within the organisation. Differences, as I indicated above, are only to be expected, and they can be valuable in charting the party's course by forcing everyone to think more carefully and precisely about the subject of the difference. A majority leadership that is confident of its position will guarantee a loyal minority the maximum scope to present its views and to participate in carrying out and testing the majority line.
That was not the approach of the present DSP leaders. They have abandoned many of the norms and traditions that the party had earlier adopted from the Bolsheviks and from the US SWP before its degeneration. The abandoning of these norms was intimately related to the majority's failed political line. The search for a political short cut through a "broad left party" led to organisational short cuts– an attitude that party members should "just do it" and that anyone wanting to think or discuss what to do was obstructing success. Unable to confront the arguments of the minority politically, they defended their positions by chopping and changing the rules to undermine and destroy party democracy.
This included deliberately depriving party members of honest information. Following the 2006 congress, reports and counter-reports were reprinted in the Activist, which was the normal procedure. What was not normal was the political censoring of the minority counter-reports. The majority deleted references to material published in the pre-congress discussion, as well as to statements made in the oral discussion.
By the time of the written discussion before the 2008 congress, censorship had extended to an outright ban on some articles– something that had never happened previously in the DSP. Two LPF members with extensive experience of Indonesian politics submitted articles reporting on the split in the PRD. The DSP NE majority voted on December 3 not to permit them to be printed in the Activist. This was reported to members in a rather cryptic NE motion that misrepresented the content of the two articles. When the two writers then submitted articles arguing against such a ban, these were also denied publication.
The December 3 NE motion referred to a "split" in the PRD– the first time that the DSP leaders had informed the members of the divisions in the Indonesian party. The DSP leaders also had not told their members that Max Lane had met with both sides in the PRD in August and prepared an informational report for the DSP, which the DSP leadership also suppressed.
After Max Lane gave a brief description of the PRD situation at the DSP congress, Graham Matthews, the majority reporter on "Organisational principles and constitutional amendments", simply bullshitted the congress about what had happened (doing so in his summary, so that there was no opportunity to challenge his account):
"I reject the claim that comrades were banned by the NE from submitting their contributions to the written PCD. The NE simply wanted to have all documents relating to the split in the PRD (from both sides) translated and read by the NE, before publicly sharing these with the membership, which is an entirely reasonable way to proceed. And we will do this in the New Year as the [December 3] resolution … made clear. And if comrades feel it is necessary, then we will have a separate and open discussion on these issues in The Activist also."
As the DSP leadership degenerates, it has increasingly taken on characteristics of bush lawyers. Matthews' statement here was not quite a lie: the NE hadn't banned members from submitting contributions to the written discussion; it had simply said – submit whatever you like, but we won't print it. But most DSP members hearing Matthews' words would have understood him to be denying that the NE had prevented LPF comrades' written contributions from being distributed.
Another majority innovation revolved around an attempt to delegitimise political discussion among party members, particularly members of the minority. I referred earlier to the peculiar fact that at the 2006 DSP congress, the majority passed a motion recommending that the minority form a faction. This behaviour becomes comprehensible when it is viewed in the context of the majority leadership's attempts to erode the DSP's traditional internal democracy.
The constitution of the DSP recognises the right of members to form a faction. Prior to 1986, the constitution also referred to tendencies. In the tradition that the DSP inherited from the Fourth International, a tendency was a looser grouping than a faction. It did not have its own discipline or select its members, and it did not seek to replace the party leadership. A tendency simply announced its existence to the party, the issue(s) on which it sought to persuade the party, and then any party member could join it by declaring support for its platform.
In reality, at least as we observed it in the Fourth International, once a group had sufficient ideological differences to start organising as a formally declared "tendency", it became difficult to maintain the distinction between tendency and faction. On the other hand, if several comrades had a particular view on some topic that they wanted to present to the party, there was no need for them to "declare a tendency" in order to work out what they wanted to say and how to say it.
So, at its 1986 congress, the DSP removed from its constitution the clauses prescribing how tendencies should operate. Jim Percy, the then national secretary, explained it like this:
"No one ever could draw the line where a tendency ended and a faction started. The whole attempt to regulate inner-party discussion to that extent was wrong headed. We don't need such an arsenal of organisational forms for our discussion. Above all, we don't need organisational forms that automatically sharpen differences by institutionalising an adversarial approach."
In short, the constitutional change removed what the party judged to be an unnecessary level of regulation. As Jim Percy explained, setting rules for tendencies sharpened differences by forcing them into an organisational form, even if a loose one. It wasn't necessary. But if party members had differences that required them to organise, then their organisation could come under the provision for factions.
The majority motion calling on the minority to form a faction was an attempt to turn this situation on its head. The majority leaders decreed that the decision not to regulate tendencies was really a decision to forbid them! As Dave Holmes put it in a report to the May 2006 NC plenum, the 1986 constitutional change was "to allow only one type of internal grouping: a faction based on a stated platform" (my emphasis). In fact, the 1986 congress had decided to regulate only one type of internal grouping– meaning that there were no special rules that other groupings needed to follow. The majority view of the DSP constitution here was that "anything not permitted is forbidden". On the basis of this Alice in Wonderland logic, it was "unconstitutional" for supporters of the minority to talk with each other unless they first formed a faction. (Thus the congress motion urging formation of a faction.)
Holmes' report, dutifully approved by the plenum, called for amending the constitution to "make it explicit that there can be no exclusive meetings or caucuses around positions during a PCD or at a congress unless a faction has been declared". This was so absurd– among other things, it would have made it impossible for either side at the previous congress to elect delegates or prepare reports– that the majority leaders later backed off from it. Still, it had served a purpose: creating a mood that there was something illegitimate about party members talking privately to each other, particularly if their conversation included anything critical of the majority line.
Not that the majority were inclined to permit private discussion even by a declared faction. Even before the May 2006 plenum, there had been at least two cases of the majority attempting to interfere with the LPF's right to conduct its own discussion. In one instance, majority leaders in Melbourne accessed the private email of an LPF member for several months, trolling through it to read LPF postings and who knows what else. When this spying was discovered, the majority snoops denied that they had deliberately hacked into the account, claiming it was accidentally left open on the office computer by the comrade whose email it was. She asked that the files be preserved so that the truth could be proved one way or the other, but the majority deleted them.
In the second case, a majority supporter on the national committee attempted to access the discussion list set up by the LPF after the 2006 congress. This majority snoop, who was later referred to in LPF emails about the attempted hacking as Barnacle E. Pumpkin, tried to get into the LPF list by posing as a particular member of the LPF. Fortunately, there was someone protecting the LPF list who was more knowledgeable about computers and the internet than is Barnacle. This LPF member was able to prevent Barnacle from gaining access to the list, despite dozens of attempts over a period of more than a week. After enough evidence was accumulated, it was revealed, and Barnacle confessed, since he could hardly do anything else. It had been, he said, a "stupid" thing to do. However, he didn't apologise (being a DSP stickybeak means never having to say you're sorry).
So it was clear from at least the January 2006 congress that the majority leaders did not regard the LPF as party members whose views were to be debated, discussed and accepted or rejected on the same basis as the views of other members, but as "a hostile faction within the DSP, a party within a party", as Peter Boyle put it in his report to the May 2006 national committee meeting– a grouping to be purged at the earliest opportunity.
But this attitude could not be acted upon immediately. It first had to be made general among the ranks of the majority. The leaders had to accustom their ranks to the idea that the LPF was an enemy within. An important subsidiary factor was the need to avoid creating a scandal in the eyes of the international parties with which the DSP maintains relations.
So, over the two years from January 2006, there was an ongoing campaign to exclude LPF members from the DSP's political life. This proceeded at different paces in the different branches: generally more slowly in branches that had a large number of LPF members, but also determined by the support or otherwise of majority members for Leninist norms. For example, in Newcastle, one of the local majority leaders took to shouting abuse in public at the branch's only LPF member.
First, LPF members began to be removed from branch executives. Initially, because many LPF members were part of the leadership in many areas of party work, majority leaders had to argue explicitly against including LPF members, or present a slate that included only majority supporters. (Slates for branch executive elections were previously extremely rare.) This was directly contrary to previous practice in the DSP, which since its beginning had always stressed building inclusive leadership teams.
Another degeneration in the DSP's organisational norms, which was occurring anyway, was reinforced because it helped to isolate the LPF from the rest of the party. Before the SA turn, the DSP had normally organised its political interventions in particular areas through "fractions". These consisted of all the members involved in that work, who would meet periodically to discuss the work and how best to carry it out. Fractions would regularly report to branch meetings to have their approach approved or modified, so the branch as a whole maintained its democratic control over each area of work, but the entire branch did not have to go through detailed weekly discussions of work in which most members might not be actively involved. In the pre-SA DSP, fractions were considered a key structure not only for organising political interventions but also for training new members in revolutionary politics.
However, from the early days of the Socialist Alliance, the pressure to build and maintain two organisations began to squeeze out the time and political attention available for fractions. In some branches and areas of work, efforts were made to organise SA fractions– i.e. DSP members plus any SA independents interested in that area who could be persuaded to participate. But SA members usually couldn't be persuaded to attend these meetings with the necessary frequency, and their usefulness for the DSP's needs of organising and training were limited by the obligation to relate to the usually quite different concerns of the SA independents. In many cases, fractions that formerly would have met fortnightly or even weekly now meet two or three times a year, if at all.
The inclination of DSP branch leaders not to organise fractions because of time pressures was reinforced by the realisation that not holding fraction meetings deprived LPF members of the opportunity to discuss politics with other party members and to participate on an equal basis in the branch's political work. More and more, the DSP's political interventions have been organised through branch leaders sending out emails or SMS messages urging members to show up for this or that event. Discussion and democratic decisions on how to intervene have been replaced by instructions from the branch executive.
This new top-down method of organising makes non-executive members dependent on the executive for their political activity. Members who for any reason fail to receive a message from the designated leader of a political intervention may not even know it is taking place. As time passed, LPF members were increasingly left out of the loop: if they wanted to be politically active in an area, they had to make a determined effort to find out what was going on.
As early as the April 2007 national committee meeting, the majority indicated its intention to purge the LPF by presenting a list of frame-up allegations against members of the LPF, but without specifying names of individuals or details, so that in most cases it was impossible to reply to the allegations, or even to be sure whether there was a particular event that was being misrepresented.
Despite the majority's ongoing campaign against it, the LPF was able to win a handful of new members and to elect 20 per cent of the delegates to the 23rd congress in January 2008. The national committee elected two years earlier had included supporters of the minority in rough proportion to the share of delegates which they had won. But by this time, the majority's erosion of former norms had been extended to include the abolition of proportional representation of organised minorities in the elected national leadership. On a new national committee of 52 members, the majority permitted only a token three members of the LPF. The reporter for the nominating commission tried to justify this decision with the brazen lie that the LPF had taken "the decision not to participate in the leading work of the party by abstaining from activity on those decided questions with which they had differences".
Immediately following the congress, the new national executive began assembling allegations of misdeeds by various LPF members. Aside from one or two misunderstandings that could have easily been cleared up, these allegations were universally frame-ups, and those named in them sent in detailed refutations backed by evidence.
For example, Adelaide LPF member Sam King was accused in an email sent out by Boyle to the entire NC membership of having violated DSP discipline by asking two AVSN members, one of them the DSP branch's "Venezuela solidarity work convener" to distribute an email to AVSN members seeking volunteers for an O-week stall at Adelaide University. According to Boyle, sending the email to the Venezuela solidarity work convener was a failure to collaborate with him! Furthermore, four days after this supposed violation, an Adelaide DSP branch meeting voted unanimously to try to organise AVSN stalls during O-week.
Next, majority leaders began "de-assigning" LPF members from areas of political work. or example, one comrade in Sydney was "de-assigned' from" the party's Latin America solidarity fraction by the Sydney Central branch executive because he had organised an AVSN stall at a university O-week, despite the fact that this action had been endorsed in advance by the branch executive member responsible for organising the fraction's work. The "de-assigned" LPF member was then issued instructions by the executive that this meant he was banned from "AVSN work".
Another LPF member in Melbourne, long active in Palestine solidarity, was informed at the end of March 2008 that "the branch did not assign you to this area of work at the beginning of 2008". gain, the majority leaders regarded non-assignment to an area of political work as a ban on the comrade carrying out such work.
Ignoring the rebuttal of its allegations against specific LPF members, the NE decided that the allegations justified it in setting up a subcommittee "to investigate whether or not the Leninist Party Faction (LPF) is operating within the democratic and constitutional framework of the Democratic Socialist Perspective" and to make "recommendations for appropriate action". Two of the three members of the subcommittee had already voted for a motion declaring that the LPF was violating DSP discipline.
A short time later, this subcommittee was transformed into an "investigating body" of charges filed against the entire LPF, ccasioned by the fact that four Sydney LPF members had supported a motion at the April 5 Sydney AVSN AGM that it "endorse the building of campus AVSN clubs".
On May 10, the subcommittee issued its report. This combined a rehash of already discredited charges, the central "crime" of seeking to build AVSN and several new accusations that the LPF members were not even informed of before being found guilty. Particularly farcical elements of the report included written statements from subcommittee member Lisa Macdonald addressed to the NE, which then returned them to Macdonald so that she, as an "investigator" and judge, could read her own report and decide whether her accusations of LPF misbehaviour were accurate. It is not surprising that the subcommittee did not want this document to be widely circulated, so it declared that the report should be seen only by the NE – that is, kept secret even from the members whom it accused and found guilty.
Nearly two and a half years after their campaign began, the majority had succeeded in their aim: they had made it impossible for revolutionaries who disagreed with the leadership to continue political life inside the DSP.
This process of destroying the DSP's democratic centralist practices was an outgrowth of the majority's most fundamental break with Leninist norms regarding differences. That was the refusal to confront the differences politically, to weigh the test of practice objectively, to be willing to acknowledge and correct mistakes. The majority leaders discovered during the 2005 discussion that while they could win the votes of a majority of the members by playing to their hopes for a political short cut, they could not win the debate politically. Preventing real political debate then became the overriding concern. The Leninist Party Faction had to be suppressed or expelled, by any means.
But this is not the end of the story. The members of the LPF intend to continue their struggle, and will seek to unite with everyone who shares their goal of building a revolutionary socialist party in Australia.
1. In 1972, I accompanied Helen Jarvis when she was in Indonesia researching her PhD thesis on the Indonesian revolutionary Tan Malaka. At one point we were driven into the countryside by a former leftist who had been imprisoned with others rounded up during the 1965-66 massacres but was now a Muslim. At one point, we discussed with him his conversion from socialism to Islam. He explained that in the prison camp, he had been forced to participate in the obligatory Muslim prayers every day. Eventually, he said, “Habit became belief”.2. There are arguments for not taking these figures very seriously. They were presented by NE member Dick Nichols, who in an earlier statistical presentation had included a category of SA “activists” who spent “zero to four” hours per week on political activity.A document presented to the DSP congress in January 2008 listed a category of SA “members and sympathisers”. 3. This was moved by a majority leader and approved at the DSP’s 22nd congress. This was a tactic in the majority leaders’ efforts to curtail the party’s norms of internal democracy, which are discussed below. 4. To avoid being misunderstood, I should point out that, for dialectical materialists, everything real is transitional, i.e. in the process of becoming something else. But these are lawful processes, whose laws can be discovered. We know that the sun is in transition to a nova, a process that will be completed a few billion years down the track. On the other hand, we can safely state that, despite their similarities, a camel is not a stage in a transition to a giraffe. It is of course open to the DSP to argue that SA is transitional to a broad left party, but the argument ought to be based on more than the fact that both types of organisation have four legs and a longish neck. It ought also to be shown that this transition can take place before the sun completes its transition.