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Marxists and the labour movement

A reply to Dick Nichols

By Bob Gould

Dick Nichols’s response, The ABCs of socialists and the Labor Party, in Green Left Weekly (June 27, 2001), to my recent articles, starts in an irritated, imperial way by asserting that the DSP would not usually bother replying to Gould, but he replies anyway.

He mystifies my distribution methods, but the reality is relatively simple to an old agitator like myself. I have distributed articles analysing the Socialist Alliance and the history of the DSP, the Green Left School of Falsification and the longer piece about the Communist Party, to Socialist Alliance members at meetings in Sydney, and also to ALP Socialist Left meetings, and Politics in the Pub. I have mailed it to supporters of the Socialist Alliance, mentioned in Green Left and other publications, who live outside Sydney, their addresses acquired from the electoral roll. I’ve also mailed it to left unions in other states, and some left Labor and Green parliamentarians and their staffs.

I mailed altogether about 400 interstate and I estimate that I have reached, one way or another, 60 per cent of the approximately 1000 supporters of the Socialist Alliance nationally. My aim is to kickstart on the Australian far left, a serious debate on the issues I have raised. Despite his pompous posture, Dick Nichols attempts a reply because he has to.

Nichols starts by immediately conceding my two major accusations of historical falsification, the one disputing the weird GLW assertion that the ALP imposed conscription during World War I, and the one where GLW invented a quote from Whitlam, but he brushes them off as trivia, ignoring my primary point that these historical falsifications were written by the editor of Green Left, and not even noticed by Green Left readers until I raised them, which demonstrates the reckless and ignorant attitude to the broader labour movement currently dominant in DSP circles.

Nichols then rewrites labour history in a way that deepens and extends the eccentric spin of the GLW editorial, which treated the history of the broad labour movement in Australia as a kind of conspiracy, of deliberate leadership betrayal from the start, which is an absurdity. As Karl Marx used to insist: “history is whole cloth”. Nichols tries to preserve the general thrust of this crackpot deliberate-betrayal-from-the-start theory, but edges away from it a bit by conceding that the early Labor Party achieved some reforms.

Nichols makes a meal of the proposition, first advanced by Humphrey McQueen in the l97Os, that the ALP leaders' social support base was the better-off, stably employed and conservative sections of the working class, not a small milieu in a lucky country like Australia. Nichols’s story is a crudification, for the narrowest sect-building objectives, of the problem, raised by the very successes of the workers movement in Australia, which goes right back to the old arguments among socialists 100 years ago about reform versus revolution.

It is obvious that improvements won by the working class and the labour movement in the course of struggle can have a conservatising effect. The attitude of Lenin, Trotsky and the early Bolsheviks to this problem was that the struggle for reforms inevitably proceeds anyway, and that therefore Marxists should be the most energetic campaigners for real reforms for the working class, attempting to give that struggle a revolutionary aspect. It is crude and inaccurate to imply, as Nichols does, that stably employed workers are inevitably conservative.

That approach has a good deal in common with the currently fashionable New Class theory of the bourgeois right. Stably employed, unionised workers have fought very hard to defend their existing standards, and they have often been in the vanguard of great leaps forward in working class wages and conditions, as they were in Britain and Australia in the 1950s and 1960s. In Australia the stably employed, trade-unionised working class was the spearhead of the “wages explosion” in the 1970s, which enraged the bourgeoisie.

It is obvious that none of these achievements were the full socialist revolution, and that they mostly proceeded within the framework of Laborism, but it would have been counter-revolutionary and suicidal for socialists to abstain from these upsurges because of their likely non-revolutionary reformist outcomes.

Employed, unionised workers are not automatically conservative

Nichols and the DSP have worked themselves into a surreal un-Marxist retrospective historical narrative to aid them in a political project: that of achieving mass influence for Marxist socialists, mainly by a strategy of simple exposure of Laborism.

All past historical precedents, and present sociological and political realities, suggest such a venture, in that strategic form, is impossible. If stably employed workers are inevitably going to be a conservative force, how is any socialist project possible in Australia, which is now considerably more affluent than it was in the past? Nearly 20 per cent of employed workers now have a degree of some sort. The overwhelming majority of the working class is stably employed, despite 7 per cent unemployment.

Notwithstanding the inherent instabilities in the capitalist system, particularly the trade imbalance between the US and Japan, there is not yet a global recession. If a recession or a depression does happen in the relatively short term, it is unlikely that the first response to that development will be an immediate revolt of the working class against the influence of Laborism. A much more likely development in such circumstances will be massive expectations and demands of the working class on the Laborites, and, almost as quickly, differentiation among the parliamentary Labor and trade union leaders into right and left wings in response to the problems posed in such crisis conditions.

The obvious features of the actual political crisis unfolding in Australia

Despite the relatively affluent nature of life in Australia, there is nevertheless an obvious political crisis in the country. There is enormous discontent with the conservative government of John Howard. The Goods and Services Tax and Howard’s attacks on the rights and interests of the poor, the organised working class and the self-employed petty bourgeoisie are producing a massive swing away from the Liberals.

All the indicators are that the leftward-moving part of this swing, which is the main part, is going directly to the Laborites and the Greens. No amount of propagandistic exposure of Laborism by the DSP and the Socialist Alliance is having any obvious influence to counteract this overwhelming trend. The absurdity of the DSP's approach becomes even clearer if one considers the social composition of the 1000 people who make up the Socialist Alliance. They are overwhelmingly themselves either students or members of the stably employed working class, mainly public servants. If one were to accept Nichols’s unscientific view of class relations, you would have to consider the members of the Socialist Alliance to be themselves a conservative force.

Back in 1985, in the resolution of the DSP in which it swung over to advocating disaffiliation of unions from the Labor Party, and a vote for the Democrats before the ALP, (a proposition that it has wisely, but quietly, dropped), it made the rather sweeping, and as it turned out, spectacularly inaccurate, prediction that the Hawke Government was most likely to be defeated at the next election.

Nevertheless, despite that salutary lesson from the DSP against making predictions, I make the following prediction about the electoral contours of Australia over the next nine months:

  • Labor will win the South Australian and ACT elections.
  • Labor may win the Northern Territory elections.
  • Labor will win the federal election in the biggest electoral avalanche in Australian history.
  • The Greens will get a large disaffected leftist vote.
  • The vote for the Socialist Alliance will be tiny, less than 1 per cent.

    After those elections there will be no elections for two years anywhere in Australia. For that two years socialists will have to operate on the political terrain that emerges from these elections.

    Dick Nichols, Henry Ford and the history of the labour movement

    Nichols, in passing, makes the extraordinary Henry Ford type “history is bunk” statement: “Finally, lets concede for the sake of argument, that Bob Gould is right about these historical issues. Even if he is, the fact remains that his observations are all irrelevant to the key question that the emergence of Socialist Alliance is posing right across the socialist left today.”

    Unlike Dick Nichols, I do not regard history so lightly. A theoretically soundly based and factually accurate labour movement history must inform current socialist political practice if such practice is to be effective. If the history studied and acted upon is inaccurate or false, the results are usually disastrous.

    As part of its project of asserting its hegemony in the Socialist Alliance, the DSP is working itself into a lather demanding that unions disaffiliate from the Labor Party. The DSP first advanced this proposition back in 1985, 17 years ago. Nevertheless, since that time several branches of the CPSU (Federal Public Service Union) have affiliated to the Labor Party on the left. The nurses unions in Queensland and Western Australia have affiliated to the Labor Party on the left. The four big unions that disaffiliated to support the Groupers, at the time of the 1955 DLP split in Victoria, have reaffiliated to the Labor Party, and two of them — the Clerks Union and the Carpenters Union, which has been absorbed into the Victorian CFMEU — now support the left of the Labor Party, while two of them — the Shop Assistants and the Ironworkers, now amalgamated with the AWU — support the right.

    In NSW there have been several disaffiliations. Several years ago the National Union of Workers disaffiliated, largely because of factional disputes within the right. More recently the Newcastle branch of the AWU disaffiliated, partly because of discontent with the Carr Government and partly because of factional disputes within the right.

    The left-wing Fire Brigade Union has also disaffiliated because of legitimate industrial grievances with the NSW Labor Government. It is not obvious that the DSP's strategy of urging unions to disaffiliate has had any direct influence on this varied record of affiliations and disaffiliations over the past 17 years.

    The history of trade union affiliation and structural influence in the ALP

    There have been episodes of union disaffiliation in the past, one in the early 1920s when the left unions disaffiliated in NSW to support a breakaway Socialist Labor Party, but went back into the ALP in the middle l920s to support Lang.

    There was a further disaffiliation episode in NSW in 1941, when some unions went with the Communist Party-led State Labor Party in a split, but these unions reaffiliated when the CPA supported the Curtin Government during the Second World War, a couple of years later.

    The biggest campaign for disaffiliation was led by the CPA in 1949, after the coal strike, combined with a campaign to affiliate left-wing unions to the CPA, but the campaign to get unions to affiliate to the CPA didn’t achieve even one affiliation to it, and all the left unions reaffiliated to the ALP at the time of the Grouper split in 1955.

    The Groupers, in their turn, during the 1955 split in Victoria, engineered the disaffiliation of four major unions that they led. All those unions in their turn reaffiliated to the ALP in the 1980s. In the 1970s, the Labor Party adopted a new state and federal structure, which embodied two elements, both of them progressive from a socialist point of view. One was proportional representation of all factions at all levels in the Labor Party structure, and the other one was the institutionalisation of 60 per cent trade union voting rights and 40 per cent branch voting rights at the ALP conference in each state and territory.

    This institutional influence of trade unions in the ALP structure is much more advanced and entrenched now than it is in Britain. A definitive shift of the ALP totally to the right requires the elimination of this trade union preponderance. This is well understood by the extreme parliamentary right in the ALP.

    A campaign has been developing, spearheaded by Carmen Lawrence and Geoff Gallop in Western Australia to get rid of this trade union preponderance. The potential of the trade union influence for blocking a neo-liberal agenda in the Labor Party was shown by the defeat of electricity privatisation in NSW three years ago. The political climate since then in Australia has swung sharply against further privatisations.

    The inevitable collision between the ALP parliamentary right and the whole of the trade union movement after the landslide election of the coming Beazley government

    The proverbial Blind Freddy can see that, after the coming landslide election of the Labor federal government, and the likely election of Labor governments in South Australia and the two territories, there will be the collision of all collisions between the neo-liberal agenda espoused by the extreme parliamentary right wing in the ALP, and the interests of the working class and the petty bourgeoisie.

    That struggle will proceed over issues such as further privatisations and the abolition of the GST, and will take the form of the right wing neo-liberals in parliamentary Labor pushing for the removal of the trade union influence from the Labor Party. In this context it is politically unsound of Dick Nichols and the DSP to be making common cause with the neo-liberals in the parliamentary right of the ALP by campaigning to push the unions out of the Labor Party. The campaign that is really required is for the maximum affiliation of unions to the ALP to defeat the political program of the neo-liberals and the parliamentary right, on all the pressing issues of the day.

    The political activity of George Petersen

    Dick Nichols thinks he has the debating point of all debating points when he quotes George Petersen’s views at the end of his life. George and I were close associates for many years. It is quite obvious that his views and mine diverged, at the end, on the usefulness of socialists working in the ALP. I would recommend George’s extraordinarily useful and interesting autobiography to everybody who wants to understand anything about how to conduct an effective agitation in the Labor Party and the parliament for socialist and working class objectives.

    It is required reading, particularly for left wingers who will be elected to the federal parliament after the coming elections, mostly as Laborites and some as Greens. It also ought to be required reading for members of the DSP and the Socialist Alliance. If they could be persuaded to read the whole book, rather than Dick Nichols’s carefully selected paragraph, they might be able to form a view on some of the issues in dispute, and they might also get something of the flavour of active socialist political life beyond the small world of the Marxist sect.

    The inescapable fact is that George Petersen’s parliamentary activity took place as a Labor MP, and he applied to that parliamentary activity all the energy, agitational ingenuity and enormous attention to detail he describes in his book.

    George made a major contribution to improving prison conditions, achieving homosexual law reform, decriminalising abortion, and even proportional representation in the NSW upper house, to say nothing of the release of the framed-up Ananda Marga activists, Paul Alister, Ross Dunn and Tim Anderson. His parliamentary position as a Labor MP, for a safe industrial seat, was central to the achievement of all these desirable outcomes.

    The quotes from George’s book that Nichols uses for his purpose are contradicted by the whole content of George’s extraordinary activity in the bourgeois parliament of NSW, (which Nick Origlass used to call the gas-house). George Petersen earned the right to his pessimistic conclusions about Laborism by his life of devoted socialist activity, but whether his personal conclusions were correct or not depends on a balancesheet of current political possibilities. In my view there will be other parliamentary agitators of the socialist sort thrown up in the coming federal elections, but they will be thrown up, in the short term, via the parliamentary avenue of Labor or the Greens.

    In the Green Left Weekly of July 11, 2001, in a second article, Unions, the ALP and the Socialist Alliance, Dick Nichols returns to the ALP affiliation question and presents an ultimatum to his allies: that the Socialist Alliance must take up the question of disaffiliating unions from the ALP and affiliating them to the Socialist Alliance.

    When one considers the failure of the CPA, whose influence in the unions was infinitely greater than the current influence of the DSP in unions, in such a project, one forcibly remembers the aphorism about history being repeated the second time as farce!

    Nichols attempts to buttress his false arguments with pretentious, bombastic language, which is fast becoming the hallmark of his polemical style. In an argument with Trotsky in the 1930s, Victor Serge made the point that it is better politically to write about socialists with whom you have tactical disagreements, and even about your class enemies, with a certain respect. None of that for Nichols, and his florid prose tips over into total cultural and political backwardness in one sentence about the ALP: “It has been taken over by lawyers and arrogant little nerds like Bob Carr, and is beyond salvation.”

    This weird sentence, with its religious overtones and its implicit image of hoary-handed proletarians, (presumably Nichols) versus “nerds”, invokes all the stupid backwardness of the tabloid press, or the authors of Labor Without Class. Nichols' argument, and his ultimatum to the Socialist Alliance, is summarised in the last two paragraphs:

      Such questions are too important to be left to gatherings of officials, or even of delegates, especially in unions where the alienation of the mass of members from “the union” is near total. Indeed, this critical debate is today linked in the basic struggle to rebuild the unions as fighting instruments of the members. It is impossible to rejuvenate them simply on the basis of more militant industrial policy or greater rank and file involvement, critical though these questions are.

      The emergence of the Socialist Alliance is an important fact in the struggle to reconstruct the decrepit and moribund union movement that subordination to the ALP has helped create in this country. It enables the question: "What political alternative do working people need" to be posed in many more arenas and more sharply than ever before. Rest assured that the Alliance will be driving that debate with all the energy at its command.

    There you have the summarised wisdom of the DSP about how to reconstruct the unions. Normal trade union structures are no longer useful in reviving the unions, and you have to have something else, which is not spelled out — maybe secret ballots.

    The reactionary implications of these paragraphs are pretty clear. The “democratic” argument about ALP-union affiliation being against the wishes of the rank and file is obvious nonsense, taken from the literary arsenal of the tabloid press, and Liberal Party ministers Peter Reith and Tony Abbott.

    All serious electoral sociology inevitably comes up against the reality that the overwhelming majority of unionised workers vote Labor, even when there are big electoral swings against Labor. How can the affiliation of unions to the ALP be undemocratic in those circumstances?

    Nichols’ two paragraphs are particularly sinister in the context of current politics. The Liberal and Democrat dominated parliamentary committee on electoral processes has just tested the water for a legal attack on the right of unions to affiliate to the ALP. At about the same time as the release of this parliamentary report, Nichols suggests that socialists should jump into the same field, demanding ultra-“democratic” arrangements about ALP affiliation, which bypass existing union structures. This whole tack by the DSP is so extraordinary that it must be called to order immediately.

    The Socialist Alliance

    In my view, the coming together of a number of socialist groups in a Socialist Alliance is a healthy and progressive step, and is a development of interest to all serious socialists. The defect of this development, so far, is the entrenched sectarianism of the DSP, the dominant group politically in the Alliance, towards socialists in the Labor Party, socialists in the unions who are involved in the Labor Party, and socialists in the Green Party.

    These tactical problems in the Socialist Alliance are very serious political questions confronting the few thousand socialists who are politically active in Australia. For this reason I make this proposal to Dick Nichols and his fellow convenors of the Socialist Alliance: why not hold a debate/symposium at the Socialist Alliance conference on political perspectives and such questions as the affiliation of unions to the ALP, with say Dick Nichols of the DSP, Alison Stewart of the ISO, Alison Thorne from the Freedom Socialists, Bob Gould, Frans Timmerman from the Victorian ALP Pledge faction and Janet Burstall from Workers Liberty, followed by extensive discussion from the floor? Surely a serious discussion of perspectives is required for any Socialist Alliance to be a success.

    August 2001


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