Ozleft
An independent forum of strategy, tactics and history in the Australian left, green and labour movements
Contents

Left links

Ozleft home

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.

Also, 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 unexpected turns.

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.

The 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.

Some of 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 could change.

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 Australian politics.

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 foreseeable future.

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 monolithic control.

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 sharp 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 society.

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 Australia 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.

That 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 out.

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 leadership.

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 perspective.

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.

The most 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 fantastic document.

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.

I 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.

This bloke 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 unions

The Boyle supporters clearly base their unrealistic perspective on 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 agree, 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 substantial player in 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 to monolithism.

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 considerable detail.

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 assets.

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.

The 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 such adventures.

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.

More 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.

This 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.

In left 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.

Ozleft home

Comments welcome. Ozleft

Hit counter
Since December 15, 2005