The struggle in the DSP
By Bob Gould
I tend to be damned by the DSP leadership no matter what I
do. When I comment on events on the far left I get a tirade of verbal
abuse from the Boyle faction intended to avoid political discussion,
and when I don't comment I'm abused for not commenting. As it
happens, I've had my head down and bum up running my business for
the past month or so, preparing for Christmas and organising the
bookshop website, so I haven't had a lot of time to comment.
a certain instinct in these matters has led me to hold fire on the
spectacular upheaval going on in the DSP, because it's not completely
played out yet and factional brawls of this sort often take
Firstly, the DSP internal documents have
been circulating widely on the Australian far left for a couple of
months. These days, the DSP despite its aspiration to monolithism,
leaks like a sieve.
Despite what the DSP leadership, either
faction, will say, I don't take any particular pleasure in the brutal
power struggle that's going on in the DSP. I've known a lot of the
protagonists for a very long time, and by their lights they're
engaged in the struggle for socialism, as they see it.
Unfortunately, an ingrained and self-induced sectarian
monolithism in the DSP has led to political practices and habits that
are a big
obstacle to the successful struggle for socialism.
struggle in the DSP takes the form of a conflict between a minority
led by apparently not-so-lifetime general secretary John Percy along
with Doug Lorimer, and a faction led by Peter Boyle, who is a byword on
the Australian left for bombast, exaggeration and spectacular left
talk often devoid of any serious political content.
Boyle's supporters are serious people and it has mystified me for
quite a while why some of these serious people accept some of
Boyle's often hysterical bombast.
The explanation for that is
now clear: they're locked into a faction with Boyle. He's the boss,
and currently the leader of the majority in the DSP, although that
The Boyle group has invested a fantastic amount
of emotion and effort in an obviously absurd proposition that the
so-called Socialist Alliance, which is essentially a wholly owned
subsidiary of the DSP, is some sort of serious alternative in
This bombast is even reflected in little
things. A successful and effective demonstration of 5000-6000 workers
in Geelong on the national day of action against Howard's industrial
relations proposals is exaggerated by six or seven times to 35,000, to
make the DSP look good. If 35,000 workers demonstrated in Geelong,
the revolution would be just around the corner, which it clearly
isn't in Australia at this stage.
The massive mobilisation of
half a million nationally against the industrial relations proposals,
overwhelmingly organised by the official labour movement – the ACTU
and the Labor Party – is presented as if the DSP was a major
player, which just about everyone outside the ranks of the Boyle
faction of the DSP leadership can see is a lunatic view of the world.
The Boyle group presents a picture in which there's some kind
of real possibility in Australia at this time of proclaiming a new
workers' party of which the DSP, led by the Boyle faction, would be a
major force. This Boyle faction perspective is clearly
completely at odds with any recognisable reality in the current
circumstances in Australia.
The actual circumstances are
that, in a defensive reaction against the attacks of the Howard
government on the union movement and the conditions of the working
class, which have been achieved over 100 years, the overhwelming
majority of the organised working class, the ethnic communities and
the radical section of the middle class have closed up defensively,
gritting their teeth at some reactionary aspects of Labor policies,
behind Labor, and the more radical elements behind the Greens,
leaving no space at all for the Socialist Alliance for the
The Boyle perspective is political
nonsense, only sustained by a constant appeal to hysteria. This is
accentuated by the fact that the ruthless sect-like behaviour of the
DSP in the Socialist Alliance has reduced that organisation simply to
the DSP and its closest allies.
The ISO and the other groups
do almost nothing in the Socialist Alliance in the face of the DSP's
By and large the independents have
disappeared from the Alliance. The only significant “independents”
left are DSP “non-party Bolsheviks”, and the two most prominent
of these, Dave Riley and Alex Miller, have signed up publicly, with
some fanfare, as members of the DSP. One of the few remaining
genuinely independent individuals in the Socialist Alliance was the
respected historian Humphrey
McQueen, who articulates his own political views, and was often in
conflict with the DSP. Humphrey has now effectively resigned from the
alliance by refusing to renew his dues, with a one-line explanation
that in his view the alliance is now dead.
The eruption of a serious and
deep-rooted factional struggle in the DSP is not surprising. The
sect-like internal atmosphere of the DSP and the mistaken political
perspective of the recent past has brought the organisation into
fairly sharp collision with objective developments in Australian
The eclectic political line of the DSP, constructed
over a fairly long time, is pretty exotic. To the DSP's left, so to
speak, an energetic propaganda group, Socialist Alternative, which
paradoxically adopts a rather more opportunist policy than that of
the DSP towards the Labor left in the student movement, has almost
entirely eclipsed the DSP in the student movement, which is still
where most recruits to the far left come from.
The DSP is a
rapidly ageing organisation and its youth work has virtually
collapsed. The Percy faction points out in its campaign for what it
calls “recadreisation” that the youth organisation, Resistance,
is at its lowest level since its foundation 35 years ago. Its
membership figures haven't
even kept up with population growth.
To some extent this is a
product of difficult objective conditions facing the left, but the
Percy minority, correctly in my view, points out that the Socialist
Alliance venture was in some degree misconceived and has contributed
to the collapse of DSP youth work.
The crisis in the DSP has
produced a veritable political explosion in the organisation, in some
ways not unlike the explosion in the previously monolithic WRP, in
Britain and internationally, when Gerry Healy was overthrown.
The crisis also has echoes of the explosion in the Communist Party of
in 1966-69, the high point of which was the inauguration for the
first time in 30 years of a printed discussion bulletin, which over
seven or eight issues ended up with about 200 contributions.
explosion was a product of the artificial repression of debate during
the previous long Stalinist period, and when the floodgates opened,
discussion flourished. The CPA made no serious attempt to
keep that discussion internal.\
I'm reliably informed that frantic
factional activity is taking place right now in preparation for the
DSP congress, and more than 100 new contributions have been submitted
to the DSP internal bulletin. These will have to be produced over the
next two weeks, which is unprecedented for the DSP. The mind boggles at
the logistic problem of producing so much
material in hard copy in an attempt to avoid electronic communication
of it, so that it won't find its way on to the web.
Of course, it has
already proved impossible to keep the discussion internal. The
DSP would be better off publishing it all and they might make a
little money out if it, as Boyle cynically, but not seriously, points
Several old hands in the DSP, while trying to maintain
some kind of independent position, tend to be, at this stage, siding
with Boyle. One long-standing leader, who paradoxically is the other
trustee besides John Percy of the DSP's considerable assets,
expresses, obviously genuinely, his personal agony at the split in
the DSP leadership, which he ascribes to the breakdown of
relationships in the Sydney branch and DSP national office. He points
out that, historically, this is a unique division in the DSP
His anguish doesn't prevent him, however, siding
with Boyle as one of his 23 supporters on the national committee.
The Percy faction
The Percy faction, at this stage is
a minority on the DSP national committee, and the Boyle group makes a
big fuss about being the majority. That doesn't make the congress
outcome a foregone conclusion.
The Percy faction is a rather
conservative group that harks back to the DSP as it was in the past,
and it has, in my view, the utopian idea that it's possible to
re-establish the DSP in much the same framework of an energetic,
monolithic propaganda group, which they think worked well from the
1970s to the 1990s.
The Percy supporters are having
themselves on a bit. It's doubtful that the DSP's monolithism can be
restored, even if that was desirable.
Nevertheless, in their dogged way, the Percy supporters have clearly
won the written argument in the internal bulletins published so far.
The Percy group has concentrated on demolishing the crazy
perspective of the Boyle faction, or rather its lack of any realistic
Politically, I'm no fan of John Percy, Doug
Lorimer or Allen Myers, but they're old campaigners with some
grounding in Marxism and they're not nearly as backward about broad
political questions as Boyle and his closest allies.
likely variant is that by the time the congress happens there will be
something like a 50:50 split, and which group will have a slight
majority is unpredictable.
The rank and file supporters of
the Percy group are quite impressive in the internal discussion and
they go a long way toward debunking the overblown and fantastic
perspectives of the Boyle supporters.
The Boyle supporters
have just published on the Socialist Alliance website their
perspectives for the Socialist Alliance. It's a bizarre and
The one thing that can be said about it, as no doubt
the Percy supporters will, is that very little of this perspective is
likely to be achieved. It's idealist and rather cynical fantasy
designed to give the ranks something uplifting and fanciful to hope
for, despite all the evidence of developments in the real world.
was rather impressed by one dogged rank-and-file Percy supporter from
the Adelaide branch who quite effectively punctured fantastic
perspectives by pointing out the actual circumstances facing members
of the DSP in the Socialist Alliance in that city.
points out that the actual situation is that other than the DSP,
there is one good independent who opposes the DSP most of the time,
two energetic people who he describes as hostile ex-members, and a few
energetic and noisy crazies who drive everyone mad. I've seen
the work of one of those crazies on the DSP discussion list, and I
think I know exactly how the bloke in Adelaide feels.
The Boyle faction and the "militant current" in the trade
The Boyle supporters clearly
base their unrealistic
the idea that what they call “the militant current in the trade
unions” will give birth to some kind of new mass workers' party in
the immediate future. The Percy-Lorimer supporters quite sensibly
subject this fantasy to withering criticism.
It is true, and all socialist observers and participants
there is in some sense a militant current in the unions, particularly
in Victoria and WA, and to a lesser extent in every other state, but
the difficulty with the Boyle supporters' bland and sweeping
perspective about this militant current is that it is extremely
heterogeneous and, as Lorimer points out, the vast majority of its
participants are entrenched in the Labor Party and show no immediate
signs of departing from Labor.
In addition, the leading personalities in the militant current
occupy different positions in internal Labor Party battles. Martin
Kingham and Michele O'Neil, for instance, are entrenched members of
the ALP Socialist Left, while Dean Mighell, the electrical trades
union leader in Victoria, who the Boyle supporters regard as an
industrial ally, is now in a rather high-profile political alliance
with the right faction in the Victorian ALP.
Kevin Reynolds, the construction union leader in WA, is a
internal Labor Party affairs and runs his own centre-right
faction, usually in alliance with the right in the WA Labor Party.
In the Victorian metalworkers' union, where Chris Spindler, an
energetic militant in the continuing Workers First faction, has just
been elected, by the state council one presumes, as state president,
it seems quite clear that his election is part of the peace deal
brokered a year or so ago between Workers First and the DSP's bete
noire, AMWU federal secretary Doug Cameron.
I have no quarrel with that peace deal. Such matters are quite
properly decided by activists in the union, and the peace deal in the
Victorian AMWU seems to me quite sensible, given the Howard
government's assault on the trade unions. Nevertheless these
circumstances, concretely observed and analysed, are a million miles
from the dotty perspective of the Boyle supporters about more or less
imminent possibilities for a new workers' party brought about by the
alleged exposure of Laborism.
The Boyle supporters' pitch to backwardness
The unpleasant and dangerous aspect of the Boyle grouping, and
particularly Boyle, is that they make a deliberate pitch to every bit
of left talk that comes from anywhere, and they've drawn all the
left-talking and irresponsible elements in and around the DSP to
them, obviously to try to create a pack mentality, and to some extent
hoist the Percy minority on the petard of the Percys' own adherence
I've seen the Boyle style of politics before,
paradoxically, particularly in the atmosphere created by John and Jim
Percy all those years ago in the dispute in the original Resistance.
It's an unpleasant and dangerous way to conduct Marxist politics and
Boyle and his closest associates have clearly studied that method in
It appears to me that by assembling all the
insulted and injured and anyone he can get, Boyle is making a bid for
total control of the DSP/Socialist Alliance and has launched a power
struggle. Some of my associates think I may be
wrong about this, but it appears to me that the backdrop to it all
may be a power struggle about the DSP's rather considerable material
I address and appeal to the saner people who are
currently associated with Boyle in his faction: despite your
political agreement with Boyle, do you really want him in control of
the DSP with all of its centralised traditions and features intact?
The language Boyle uses in public discussion clearly indicates
that he's an adventurer and chancer given to using the most primitive
methods in discussion to achieve his ends.
As I've said
previously, I have no reason to do any favours for John Percy, etc,
but I would say very seriously to members of the DSP that the
immediate task is to defeat Boyle's bid for total control in a
centralised, authoritarian DSP. If he were to succeed, no one could
predict what kind of organisation the DSP would evolve into. In
the short term, the defeat of the Boyle forces is preferable for the
health of the far left in Australia.
The constant hysteria on
the Green Left discussion list directed at any critics, almost
entirely coming from supporters of the Boyle faction, gives a pretty
clear indication to anyone with political experience as to the
political outlook of Boyle and the faction he has assembled. If
anyone disagrees with the Boyle faction, gratuitous and constant
abuse is used, with little political content, other than a crude and
rather mindless ultraleftism.
Boyle usually leads the pack.
Extreme examples are his loopy racism when he repeatedly referred to
Gould as “whitey” and it was Boyle who first put up the post with
the heading about the Glasgow kiss. Boyle often passes off his
abusive language as humour, but it has a clear political intention:
to assemble all the backward and half-educated elements in and around
the DSP in his corner.
There are a number of more serious and
calmer people in Boyle's faction, but they tend to leave the running
to Boyle. On the face of it, all the crazies in and around the DSP
seem to have rallied to Boyle. It's almost a case of the lunatics
trying to take over the asylum.
In working-class politics,
Boyle's approach is very dangerous. There are a number of precedents
in the left of the Australian labour movement that the members and
supporters of the DSP, particularly the saner elements, should
consider very carefully before the coming DSP conference.
first is the Australian Communist Party during the Stalinist Third
Period. Stalin's Comintern, which was none too fussy about personnel,
promoted a dubious figure called Wicks, and sometimes called Moore,
who had been an active right-winger in the US, and ostensibly
converted to Communism. He was made a Comintern representative and
sent to Australia to “Bolshevise” the CPA.
He became the
heart and soul of the ultraleftism in Australia during the Third
Period. He expelled all the old CPA figures such as Kavanagh and Ryan
and even the first supporter of Comintern ultraleftism, Moxon, along
with many others.
He pushed the CPA into a number of
ultraleft adventures, attacking the Langite mass movement as social
fascist. He used his Comintern authority to impose this line. It's
pretty well established that he cooked up crazy schemes for the
insurrections in various places, which the local Stalinists had
enough brains to avoid. But that didn't stop Moore/Wicks pushing for
One famous incident during the Third Period
was when an early communist leader, Tom Payne, was persuaded to leave
the CPA and go into the Labor Party Socialisation Unions and try to
smash them up. History repeated is sometimes farcical. A year or so
ago, Dave Riley wanted to rejoin the DSP, but the political committee
of the DSP asked him not to because he was more useful as an
independent in the Socialist Alliance. Now that the utility
of independents in the Socialist Alliance is exhausted, it's clearly
more useful for Riley to make a hullabaloo about rejoining the DSP.
After Moore/Wicks had “Bolshevised” the CPA to the
Stalinists' satisfaction, he went back to the US, where a few years
later he left the CP, reverted to the right wing, and wrote a book
condemning socialism and the Russian Revolution.
recently, in Australia in the early years of the DSP (then the
Socialist Workers League) there is another
precedent. A particular individual who had been active in the Labor
Party joined the DSP after the 1971 Labor Party NSW conference and
federal conference and took a leading role in the DSP's stacking and
winning control of the Socialist Left that then existed in the NSW
Labor Party. Almost immediately after it seized control of the
Socialist Left, the DSP decided to move out of the
Labor Party, and liquidated the Socialist Left.
individual, then in the DSP, adopted the most ultra-radical
positions, arguing that the DSP should launch a struggle to smash the
Labor Party, and when he lost that battle in the DSP he immediately
departed, to turn up a month or two later as part of the apparatus of
the NSW ALP right wing, which he later fell out with by prematurely
pushing a claim for a federal parliamentary seat.
politics, ultraleft talk is comparatively cheap, as Trotsky
frequently said. You can get enthusiasts in a room and sometimes you
can convince them of almost anything, particularly if you build up a
pack mentality and appeal to backwardness. This method is one of the
worst ways to proceed in Marxist politics.
In his final struggle with Stalin, discussed in Moshe Lewin's
book, Lenin's Last Struggle,
Lenin made the very perceptive
observation that, despite some useful features of Stalin, his
irredeemable fault, which
led Lenin to fight for his removal as general secretary, was that in
relations among socialists he was too rude. That disqualified him
from central, powerful positions of leadership. In my view, Lenin's
kind of judgement of Stalin's excessive rudeness in relations among
revolutionaries applies also in another historical context to Boyle's
push to take over exclusive control of the DSP.