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Resignations from the Democratic Socialist Party, January 2003

Sean Healy's resignation letter

Dear comrades,

I've decided to resign my membership of the Democratic Socialist Party.

This has been a very difficult decision for me to make. In spite of all my criticisms, the DSP has many positive strengths and qualities: its members are deeply committed to socialism, its political positions are principled and nearly always correct, it does much fine political work — when the barricades go up, it will be on the right side. Further, I have some 15 years' shared emotional investment in this party, which is hard to let go of.

But the problem that I see is that on the issue by which it most defines itself, its interpretation of Leninism, the party is going in the wrong direction.

I have watched over the last decade a steady hardening of the party's conception of its essential foundations: to the point where I think the central leadership is now convinced that they already know the "true" Leninist line and all that has to be done is continue repeating the categories until history somehow turns our way again. To such a view, even the Socialist Alliance becomes little more than a long detour back to (an enlarged but otherwise identical) "New DSP".

My view runs in the other direction. If the Leninist tradition is going to survive, as it must, then it must reinvent itself. Think Lenin getting off the train at Finland Station and turning "Bolshevism" upside down. The Socialist Alliance, to my view, is a point of new departure, a way for socialists to start to think and act in new ways and not just follow the same, failed line of march.

But this is not why I'm resigning.

You would think that the one thing that can be debated within a Leninist party is Leninism itself. But the conclusion I've come to after the last 18 months of bitter experience is: no, in this party at least, it can't be.

There is simply no space left in the party for principled difference, no space for me to engage in an honest, serious discussion along these lines. The formal space exists (the counter-report you allowed me to give, for example), but the real space does not: the minds of the majority of comrades are firmly closed and there is nothing I can do to reopen them. The Congress was certainly a practical proof of this — the venom was particularly chilling.

The roots of this attitude are quite deep. For one, the price of the party's high degree of political "homogeneity" and centralisation is an intellectual culture of conformity.

The result is what we see: nearly every vote is unanimous, there are scarcely ever any significantly alternative views presented, there is hardly any serious debate. Individually, comrades are highly intelligent and deeply opinionated. Put them together and they will vote for whatever report the leadership presents. And this in a party committed to "the overthrow of all existing social relations"!

Further, the attitude to difference is governed by a Cannonist tradition which holds that "any struggle within the party is a reflection of the class struggle" and that "the relationship between the leadership and the party is the same as the relationship between the party and the class" (or, as it was once described to me in typically shrill terms by Peter, "leadership is the organised mistrust of the membership").

From this standpoint, any alternative perspective of any significance, especially one which comes from outside the central leadership, can only be treated by the party leadership as a challenge to its authority and therefore as one brand or another of "capitulation" to "alien class pressures", a mortal danger which must be fought against, isolated and ended.

In such a straitjacket, real dialogue, which starts from the recognition of the truth in an opposing argument, is simply impossible.

Given all that, the only choices I believe are open to me are: recant, accept permanent marginalisation within the party or resign.

The final straw came with a conversation with the national secretary, in which it was "requested" of me that I withdraw from Global Justice work in Sydney under pain of being deemed "undisciplined". Surely this is the ultimate Random Commitment Test: choose between either the party or the broader movement. To even be asked to make such a choice convinces me that I cannot stay.

I remain a communist. I remain convinced of the need for a revolutionary party. I will remain active in social movement activism in Sydney and in the Socialist Alliance. I remain convinced that, whatever our disputes, we are still all on the same side, and I hope that I will be able to work productively with party members in the future.

    Yours comradely,

    Sean

Zanny Begg's resignation letter

Dear comrades,

I am writing to inform you of my decision to resign from the Democratic Socialist Party. As the US gears up for a second conquest of Iraq I am only too aware that it was protesting against their last conquest which lead me to join the DSP. Nothing has happened over the intervening decade which has done anything to shake the determination I felt then that this system was deeply immoral and that a better socialist world was not only necessary but also, more importantly, possible. In fact that resolve is stronger in me today the it ever was — both confirmed in a negative sense, by the horror of ongoing war, poverty and injustice, but also confirmed, in a positive sense, by the hope that springs a million times out of every act of resistance, defiance and revolution which I have witnessed or participated in over the last decade.

So given this is the case why have I come to the conclusion that I have to resign from the largest socialist party still operating in Australia? I come to this position reluctantly — I guess you could say I feel pushed rather than that I have jumped. I would love to be a member of a socialist party but I have found participating in the DSP increasingly more difficult over the last four years, to the point where my party activity has dropped to virtually zero for a year and this is obviously an untenable position to remain in. I had hoped that it would have been possible to become active again as a DSP member and the criticisms I have raised (with Sean and Marina) were part of trying to change aspects of the DSP to make that a reality. But I have found a deep reluctance within the DSP to have a real discussion about the sort of changes I want to see and I feel that things have degenerated to the point where parting ways seems to be the most useful solution.

Of course a separation of this sort will never be permanent (it's just a bye for now) as we will probably still stand on the same side of struggle and who knows what organisational forms, with which combinations of people, that may take in the future. I hope the Socialist Alliance, if it succeeds, will allow space for this discussion to continue in a new form and allow a new unity with a broader range of political opinions to be forged.

I guess there have been many sore points for me. The whole experience of trying to do the NUS Education Officer was definitely one. I felt under a huge pressure to not do my job — to not go to meetings I was elected to, to not spend time relating to other left forces and trying to build actions and campaigns, to not put energy into trying to build a left pole which could challenge the stranglehold of the ALP in Brisbane — as this was all seen as a competition with building Resistance (I also felt I was greeted with an unreasonable level of mistrust which culminated in my removal from every Resistance decision making body before the year was out — making the allegations that Resistance did not "own" the position ring a little hollow to me). And there have been others — the dispute over the Activist Left ticket at Sydney University (then finding myself not elected to the next DSP executive), the dispute over the existence of the FRC [Free the Refugees Committee] in central Sydney (with a sudden stipulation that I could not attend branch meetings when I was not in good financial standing) and the tensions over relating to the global justice movement (with Sean and I now being removed from the new global justice collective). Does anyone see a pattern here? But none of these alone really add up to leaving.

More seriously over time I have grown to feel that there are two DSPs. In one, there is the DSP which is the best movement builder, democratic, a team, the most principled and internationalist revolutionary party. It is this vision of the DSP which I joined and joined others to and which many members believe to be true. But in another there is the DSP which pits "party building" against "movement work", which marginalizes and drives out those who disagree with some aspect of the "line", and which is heavily reliant on hierarchical leadership structures that are intolerant of independent thinking and which fears success. It is this DSP which I have encountered more in the last few years and which has led me to leave.

Every political current must at some point come to grips with the legacies of the past. When I attended, on behalf of the DSP, the International Executive Committee Meeting of the Fourth International in Amsterdam in 1997 I was impressed with the party building experiences of those coming out of the Trotskyist tradition in the period after the crash — particularly the [French] LCR. I found the serious mass movement work they did in unemployed, anti-racist and solidarity movements inspiring and the spirit of which I hoped we could bring here.

We have at times committed ourselves to this type of project — the energy that was put into relating to the environmental movement through building EYA (before we turned it into a mini-Resistance) which convinced me and a range of others to join the DSP, the base building perspectives (although never implemented) for campus work in the late 90s and all the short bursts of energy we have put into the waves of issues which have crashed upon the Australian political landscape; anti-uranium, wood-chipping, anti-racism, refugees just to name a few. But for the DSP to seriously grow in size and influence in the Australian left I feel that we need to look more to living tradition of party building in places like France then the long gone tradition (with a dubious outcome) of the US SWP under Cannon. More Latin less Anglo.

Of course in the end the only decider of all these issues will be struggle. It is only through the struggle for a better world will we find out just "what is to be done". So I will see you all at the barricades and in the meantime I hope in the rough and tumble of the Socialist Alliance we will work out how to move the left forward in this country.

    Comradely,

    Zanny Begg

Response to Zanny Begg  "resignation" letter

Dear Zanny,

We were saddened to receive your letter of resignation from the DSP. Technically, it's not a "resignation," since your membership had lapsed and we had not yet voted on the proposal that you rejoin. In fact, such a motion had been scheduled for the Political Committee agenda last Monday, but we received a request from Sydney District secretary Lisa Macdonald to hold off since she'd heard on the grapevine about your pending "resignation" letter.

But that's not important It's just sad and regrettable that you've seen fit to send such a letter. I just hope that in the course of the political struggles in the coming years you come round to wanting to rejoin the DSP again.

I don't really want to use a sad letter like this to debate with you on some of the political questions you raised in your letter. No doubt there'll be opportunities in the period ahead for oral and written discussion on many of the issues. And most importantly, the test of practice, both here and around the world, will help decide many of the issues where we do have differences.

However, I would like to dispute with you on one claim in your letter, that you were "pushed" from the DSP. In fact, I would assert that exactly the opposite is the case, that in so much of your time in the DSP you were encouraged and given more than the usual opportunities to lead, and actually given special treatment! You certainly weren't victimised in any way for having dissenting views. For the most part of last year your membership had lapsed, and comrades in Sydney Central branch made extensive efforts to try to get your dues up to date so you could rejoin. Hardly the case of being pushed!

I hope that you will one day decide to rejoin the DSP, and work alongside us again in the vital task of building a revolutionary party in Australia.

    Comradely,

    John Percy

    National Secretary, for the Political Committee

Response to Sean Healy resignation letter

January 21, 2003

Dear Sean,

We received your letter of resignation from the DSP with sadness. It's always sad for a comrade to drop out or resign, and especially regrettable when the comrade, like yourself, has put so many years into actively building the party. I personally remember you first coming to the Melbourne Resistance centre as a high school student; older comrades will remember your reputation as the top seller of Green Left Weekly for a period, regularly selling more than 100 a week; more recent comrades will remember your role in the dispute in Perth branch in 1994, then as Resistance National Coordinator, and as a writer for Green Left Weekly.

I strongly urge you to reconsider your resignation. Although I definitely disagree with many of the claims in your letter of resignation (some of which I'll briefly take up in this letter) none of them in the least justify a decision to resign. I'd especially urge you to reconsider since in your letter you reassert your commitment to a communist perspective, you reassert your conviction of the need for a revolutionary party, and you state that you expect the DSP to be on the right side of the barricades. So how really to build that revolutionary party, if not by building the DSP?

Leninism

You say you have differences with the DSP's interpretation of Leninism, although you then say "But this is not why I'm resigning." The party's leadership bodies have been aware for some time that you have had differences on this question, and that's why we offered you the opportunity for counter-reports at the Congress on our International Work, and our Party-building Perspectives, which you declined, in addition to the counter report you agreed to do on our Campaigns Work. That's also why I thought it would be useful for me to write a contribution to the pre-congress discussion on lessons from our party-building experiences, hoping that you might put down in writing your own different views on this. (Looking backward, looking forward: Pointers to building a revolutionary party by John Percy, The Activist, Vol 12, No 19, December 2002.) I would have hoped such questions would have been developed further in future discussions in The Activist, but your resignation cuts off that prospect. How can you possibly claim we're unwilling to debate "Leninism itself." We're totally willing to debate; what the party is not and should not be willing to do is abandon our views and our implementation until we are convinced.

However, what you show by your letter is a very low regard for the DSP membership, your former comrades. You admit the "formal space" exists for you to argue for your views, in The Activist, in the pre-congress discussion, at the Congress itself, but when your arguments don't win, you insult the membership! The problem you should face up to was that the overwhelming majority of comrades did not agree with you, not that they had "closed minds" as you claim. You didn't convince us; that doesn't make us dupes.

Our tendency will continue to discuss the question of the party, its relationship with the movements, Leninism, Cannonism, etc, and we'll examine others' experiences, and discuss with other parties and currents, and test out our views in practice. But we'll try to steer clear of such deliberate distortions that you indulge in, when you "quote" Peter Boyle as describing, "in typically shrill terms", that "leadership is the organised mistrust of the membership." Now that's certainly a juicy one to shock younger comrades with, or to turn off liberals in the movement from contemplating joining a revolutionary party, the DSP at least. But you mis-attribute and omit context, by design or forgetfulness — the words are from Lenin approvingly quoting original comments of Trotsky, not Peter's. Peter's comments on the circumstances of this discussion with you, and the context of their original use by Lenin, is attached at the end of this letter. The point is that the party is not a "model" of a democratic organisation, but the democracy is for a purpose, to win the political agreement needed to have unity in action.

"Final straw"

You say that the "final straw" in convincing you to resign was the discussion we had on January 15. As I explained at the beginning of that meeting, I'd asked to meet after the Congress with the aim of finding a way that you could most constructively contribute to the party's work, and to reassure you that your views, although overwhelmingly rejected at the Congress, could still be argued for in the continuing written discussion in The Activist. I stressed that although the written discussion on many questions would be continuing, the majority had a right to test out our line, and we would be implementing that line. To which you replied "I would expect nothing less". I took that to be agreement, but perhaps missed the note of cynicism.

Your letter states that "it was 'requested' of me that I withdraw from Global Justice work in Sydney under pain of being deemed 'undisciplined.'" Are the quotation marks around "requested" and "undisciplined" meant to imply that these were words I used? Because they were not. I made no request or gave no instruction about your assignment, saying you should work that out with the district secretary and central branch secretary. I did express the view several times that it would be best for both the party and for yourself that we didn't ask you to intervene in a situation where you'd have to implement the party's line where it clashed with your own strongly expressed views.

This was even reaffirmed at the end of the discussion, where you asked me again whether I was instructing you not to be involved in the Global Justice group? (set up by comrade Marina Carmen late last year shortly after she left the party.) I repeated, that's up to Sydney district to discuss, but it was my own personal view that it would be best for both you and the party if you were not assigned.

I learnt a few days later that the District Committee was to meet on Sunday January 19 and was going to be discussing the global justice movement, and had invited you to attend for the item. Apparently you indicated that should be OK, but in the end you didn't make it. That meeting adopted a report presented by comrade Iggy Kim on perspectives for our work, which also made recommendations for assignments to the Global Justice group, stating:

"… it is sufficient to assign no more than two or three comrades to the group, to convince the group of the need to help build the anti-war movement. At present, Simon B, Iggy and Sean H are to be assigned to carry out this perspective. All other comrades who previously attended GJ meetings are to be reassigned to anti-war and Socialist Alliance building work. The GJ group is not the global justice movement. It is not our political priority to build the group."

As you know, choosing between "the party or the broader movement" is not a conflict for us — it's essential to build the movements, and intervene in them to build the party at the same time, they're not counterposed. But the Global Justice group is a small, limited group that in no way encompasses "global justice work", let alone "the broader movement."

"A steady hardening"?

You claim in your letter that there's been "a steady hardening" over the last decade of the party's conceptions, implying we've become more dogmatic and less open. But you have experienced the actual course of the party's development in that time, have written about it even, so know this to be a thoroughly false portrayal. The DSP has continued to explore new opportunities, continued to think creatively, in no way become narrow and dogmatic. The only conclusion can be that you have changed your views significantly, but find it hard to face up to the fact.

Need I remind you of the positive role you played in the dispute in Perth branch in 1994, where you defended the party's perspectives against comrade Steve Robson, who certainly wanted a less Leninist, less "dogmatic" party? (and resigned from the party a few weeks after the party congress in January 1995.) The Activist (Vol 4, No 10, December 1994) contains a report by you to Perth branch titled Why the Turn to Party-Building Basics? referring to the measures we had to take following our regroupment efforts in the 1980s to reaffirm some of our party-building measures. That "turn" was in 1990-91, and included the idea for Green Left Weekly. But as your report stated, it was "not a 'turn to party-building' — we'd never abandoned Leninism in the 1980s or stopped building a party; nor was this a rejection of the approach we'd taken in the '80s of taking every possibility of regrouping some sort of broad fighting political alternative to Labor, we still have that approach."

We still have that approach in 2003. The claim of the party's "steady hardening" up only serves to define your own change.

Similarly, your characterisation of our perspectives for the Socialist Alliance comes close to saying it's a waste of time, and repeats the slander of those opposed to our efforts to strengthen left unity within the Socialist Alliance by insinuating that all the DSP is after in that critically important project is a "rebadging" of itself. However, I didn't hear you raise this viewpoint in the pre-congress discussion, or at the Congress.

Finally, was there "venom" at our Congress? This is a strange charge. In our discussion last week I was surprised when you said you were "angry and bitter" after it. I was even more surprised when you claimed that the discussion on the Campaigns report was "a travesty," and Peter Boyle's party-building report "even more of a travesty." Certainly we had a vigorous discussion, but it was extremely political, and the majority of comrades found it extremely clarifying. But "venom"? In fact, comrades in the National Office received comments about the comradely, mild tone of the discussion, including from comrades who had raised political differences in the past.

"No-one has a taste for harsh words and a sharp tone of discussion. But for comrades with less political experience the harshness of a discussion can often replace the substantive political issues as the central concern." Who wrote that? Almost a decade ago? In Perth branch, against comrade Steve Robson? (The Activist, Vol 4, No 14. Sean Healy.)

Your resignation less than three weeks after our Congress, after a thorough discussion, after a decisive vote, and after your election as a candidate member of the National Committee, shows scant regard for the substantive political issues, and for the essential and urgent task of building a revolutionary party in Australia when it is more needed than ever.

It's extremely regrettable, and once again I urge you to reconsider.

    Comradely,

    John Percy

    National Secretary, for the DSP Political Committee

Appendix: Sean Healy and Lenin on "organised mistrust"

Comrade Sean Healy's reference to me asserting that Peter "once described to me in typically shrill terms" that "leadership is the organised mistrust of the membership" is a selective and distorted (by pulling out of context) quoting of an informal discussion I had with Sean sometime in mid-2001 (well before he, Marina Carman and Zanny Begg submitted the Renovation document). We were discussing Lenin's approach to the question of democracy in the party and I was arguing that the party does not seek to be a model of democracy to set an example for a better society but that the party's democracy serves nothing but its greater and more effective united action/centralism. In that context I said that Lenin looked at the question of party democracy not as an "absolute principle" but in the context of the real struggle for a centralised revolutionary party. In emergency situations, democracy would be temporarily reduced but centralism would continue in a revolutionary party.

I said that Lenin scorned phrasemongering and posturing against centralisation in the party in the name of "democracy". For example, Lenin didn't shy away from the phrase "organised distrust of the membership" raised in the debate over centralism at the Second Congress of the RSDLP.

    Of the speeches by Iskra-ists during this debate on the Rules (the one preceding the split among the Iskra-ists), particularly noteworthy were those of Comrades Martov ("association" with my ideas of organisation) and Trotsky. Every word of the answer the latter gave Comrades Akimov and Lieber exposes the utter falsity of the "minority's" post-Congress conduct and theories. "The Rules, he [Comrade Akimov] said, do not define the jurisdiction of the Central Committee with enough precision. I cannot agree with him. On the contrary, this definition is precise and means that inasmuch as the Party is one whole, it must be ensured control over the local committees. Comrade Lieber said, borrowing my expression, that the Rules were 'organised distrust'. That is true. But I used this expression in reference to the Rules proposed by the Bund spokesmen, which represented organised distrust on the part of a section of the Party towards the whole Party. Our Rules, on the other hand" (at that time, before the defeat over the composition of the central bodies, the Rules were "ours"!), "represent the organised distrust of the Party towards all its sections, that is, control over all local, district, national, and other organisations" (p. 158). Yes, our Rules are here correctly described, and we would advise those to bear this more constantly in mind who are now assuring us with an easy conscience that it was the intriguing majority who conceived and introduced the system of "organised distrust" or, which is the same thing, the "state of siege". One has only to compare this speech with the speeches at the Congress of the League Abroad to get a specimen of political spinelessness, a specimen of how the views of Martov and Co changed depending on whether the matter concerned their own group of a lower order or someone else's. [One Step Forward, Two Steps Back (1904) LCW Vol 7, pp 253-255]

There is a certain irony that Sean tries to use the phrase "organised distrust of the membership" to paint the party as undemocratic and over-centralised and adhering to a "Bolshevism" that needs to be "turned upside down". The term was used for a similar cause by the Mensheviks to advance their opportunism in organisational questions, in Lenin's words from the Preface of One Step Forward, Two Steps Back:

    ...their advocacy of a diffuse, not strongly welded, Party organisation; their hostility to the idea (the "bureaucratic" idea) of building the Party from the top downwards, starting from the Party Congress and the bodies set up by it; their tendency to proceed from the bottom upwards, allowing every professor, every high school student and "every striker" to declare himself a member of the Party; their hostility to the "formalism" which demands that a Party member should belong to one of the organisations recognised by the Party; their leaning towards the mentality of the bourgeois intellectual, who is only prepared to "accept organisational relations platonically"; their penchant for opportunist profundity and for anarchistic phrases; their tendency towards autonomism as against centralism — in a word, all that is now blossoming so luxuriantly in the new Iskra, and is helping more and more to reveal fully and graphically the initial error." LCW Vol 7, p.207-208)

Peter Boyle


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Created on April 10, 2003