The sad end of the DSP

“Socialist Alliance structures remain too loose and weak to win, educate and train new socialist activists and the Socialist Alliance caucuses and working groups have only partially begun to organise united interventions into the movements.” This statement was made in a resolution adopted by the 22nd congress of Democratic Socialist Perspective (DSP), held in January 2006. Since the end of 2003, the DSP, formerly the Democratic Socialist Party, has described itself as a “Marxist tendency in the Socialist Alliance”. The SA is no stronger today than four years ago; indeed, in many respects it is weaker, but the DSP leadership has decided that from the next DSP congress, to be held on January 2, the DSP will “merge” into the SA, thus handing to the SA the tasks of winning, educating and training new socialist activists. What has changed? Only the DSP leadership’s perception of how best to keep reality at bay.

DSP leaders like to hurl the charge of “dogmatism” at anyone who points out the hollowness of the pretence that the SA is a step towards “left unity”. But this “dogmatic” view is shared by every socialist organisation in Australia outside the DSP-SA and by the great majority of former non-aligned members of the SA. The real dogmatists are the DSP leaders, who have made it a principle to persist in the SA “tactic” in all circumstances.

The DSP’s pretence that the SA embodies “left unity” is all the more ridiculous because the behaviour of the DSP has been the biggest barrier to greater collaboration within the organised left. It was the factional behaviour of the DSP that drove all the other socialist groups out of the SA and turned it into a DSP front. It was the factionalism of the DSP that drove out most of the independent left activists, organised in the Non-Aligned Caucus.

Furthermore, it was the factionalism of the DSP leaders that caused the secret reading of a DSP minority comrade’s private emails in 2007; excluded DSP minority comrades from being elected to DSP branch executives; then excluded them from political work such as Venezuela and Palestine solidarity; denied the DSP minority any but token representation on the DSP national committee (NC) in 2008; and then, in May 2008, expelled the minority en bloc from the DSP for the “crime” of seeking to building campus clubs in solidarity with the Venezuelan socialist revolution.

Despite this record of driving away hundreds upon hundreds of other socialists, DSP national secretary Peter Boyle has the effrontery to say (in a report to the DSP’s October NC meeting): “By merging the DSP into the Socialist Alliance we are seeking to learn from the living revolutions. In this process we are not giving up our revolutionary socialist politics — we are finding the best road to taking that politics to a bigger audience.” What living revolution triumphed by pursuing a single tactic above all others in all situations? What living revolution advanced by dissolving a revolutionary party into an amorphous organisation of mostly inactive paper members? What living revolution drove away the great majority of revolutionary socialists? Where exactly did Boyle learn these lessons?

It is simply untrue that the SA provides a bigger audience for revolutionary socialist politics. The DSP’s SA “tactic” has resulted in a steady shrinkage of the readership of Green Left Weekly, which is the single biggest potential audience for DSP politics. It has meant that DSP members have spent countless hours trying to maintain SA structures and involve SA members, hours that often could have been better spent addressing larger and more receptive audiences in the unions or social movements.

Programmatic retreat

Worst of all, the illusion that the SA means speaking to a bigger audience has led to a steady erosion of what the DSP says about politics, as it attempts to win an illusory following by toning down or hiding its former revolutionary message. Consider just the following sample:

  • Tim Gooden, the DSP’s most prominent union official and secretary of the Geelong Trades Hall Council, publicly defends the compulsory arbitration system and urges employers and workers to get together to save jobs, telling the March 11 Geelong Times: “We need a single office front that can support all workers and businesses that are going through transition — a single point that can identify what jobs are coming and going and any skill gaps in those changes in order to make sure the correct training and support programs”.
  • Peter Boyle has declared publicly, several times, that the Marxist program of socialist revolution is not scientific, but merely a “working hypothesis”.
  • DSP national executive member and SA co-convener Dick Nichols calls on the Rudd government to launch a “green New Deal” — that is, to include an ecological element in its Keynesian program for saving capitalism at workers’ expense.
  • Tim Gooden, in Green Left Weekly, urges that banks be nationalised because it’s not a radical measure (which indeed it isn’t under a capitalist government) and that the nationalised banks be run in “the community interest” (which is impossible under a capitalist government).
  • Another SA-DSPer later adds in GLW that Qantas, if renationalised by the current government, “could be run in the interests of those that work for it, society as a whole and the environment”. Is that how it was run before it was privatised?
  • In Melbourne, SA-DSP women watered down the DSP (and SA) demand for free abortion on demand in order to curry favour with the Greens and the more conservative elements of the pro-choice campaign.
  • A GLW editorial reduced “the underlying causes of domestic violence” to “poverty, disadvantage, unemployment and women’s lack of financial independence” — implying that capitalists can’t be guilty of domestic violence and completely ignoring the entire body of Marxist understanding of women’s oppression.
  • The SA’s September 10 submission to the Rudd government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme green paper called on the government to “protect” manufacturing industry and “boost investment and productivity” to make Australian industry — the existing, capitalist-owned industry — “capable of competing globally”. While claiming to oppose the CPRS, the submission concludes by advising the government how to make it work better: “Any assistance to coal-power generators must be limited to conditional ‘once-off’ direct assistance when the Scheme commences to operate” — giving billions to the polluters is okay if you don’t make a habit of it!
  • Peter Boyle, on the GLW internet discussion list, refers to the capitalist rulers’ prisons as “our prisons”: “A rally ... as a show support for those opposing privatisation of our Prisons and other Public Services and Utilities”.
  • In GLW’s September 20 SA “Our Common Cause” column, SA-DSP member Ben Courtice calls for “government assistance, including investment” in renewable energy-related manufacturing industry. Government ownership is described as an option (“perhaps”) that is needed only to ensure “a fair outcome” for the workers concerned: they can rely on Rudd Labor, apparently, to look after the interests.
  • Sam Wainwright, after winning election to the Fremantle City Council, congratulates elected mayoral candidate Brad Pettitt for his “strong and vibrant campaign”, which was endorsed by the Fremantle Chamber of Commerce.
  • The “Sam for Hilton” blog encourages attendance at a BBQ of the cop informers group Neighbourhood Watch.

The DSP may think it is speaking to an audience of people who are not (yet) revolutionary socialists. The reality is that a non-revolutionary political outlook is more and more speaking through the DSP.

‘Steering’ the ex-DSP membership

At the January 2009 DSP NC meeting, there were differences on the national executive about how the DSP and SA “should interrelate, about the interface between the two organisations”, as Dick Nichols put it in his report. In his summary, Nichols denied Boyle’s characterisation that he was proposing “making the Socialist Alliance the primary, overarching structure for our politics”. So, in January, the NE and the NC were agreed on maintaining “two organisations”, but Boyle appeared less enthusiastic than Nichols about hiding the DSP “lite” under the SA basket case.

Less than six months later, in June, with no explanation to DSP members about what had changed, Boyle presented the NC with a unanimously supported NE proposal to make the SA not merely the “overarching structure” but the only structure for DSP politics. But at the October NC meeting, the unexplained compromise within the NE appears to have shifted back in Boyle’s direction. After dissolving into the SA, Boyle proposed that the DSP is to be maintained as “a non-caucusing tendency of opinion”. More correctly, it should be called a Clayton’s tendency: if they don’t caucus, how do the members of the tendency establish common opinions, or even know what opinions they have in common?

Part of the purpose of this unformed formation is to provide a fig leaf for a proposed ex-DSP national steering committee, another new creation of the Boyle leadership group. If there were no tendency for the steering committee to steer, some SA members might realise that one of the main functions of the committee will be to steer the SA. As Boyle admitted to the October DSP NC meeting, the SA isn’t capable of electing a real national leadership. Hence the steering committee will make the real decisions and transmit them to the “non-caucusing tendency of opinion”, whose other function will be to carry out the steering committee’s instructions. Since the steering committee is to have unfettered power to decide who is or isn’t a member of the “tendency of opinion”, and the tendency doesn’t caucus (that is, doesn’t have democratic discussions of policies or what the steering committee is doing) but will meet only every two years, the steering committee is given a blank cheque to run the remains of the DSP and, through it, the SA.

Destruction of cadre

The loss of Marxist cadre within the DSP that has occurred in bits and pieces over the last few years is to become wholesale, as former DSPers become part of the amorphous SA paper membership. A Marxist cadre is a devoted member of a Marxist organisation that is structured to organise, educate and train its members so as to be capable of gradual growth in “ordinary” times and rapid expansion in periods of upsurge of the class struggle. It is meaningless to speak of “cadre” in the absence of a cadre organisation.

Those DSPers who try to function as Marxist cadres in the SA will soon feel like they are wrestling with jelly. SA member X seems very open to Marxist ideas, but after you’ve had a few informal discussions and/or invited him/her to an educational class or two, what is the next step? What organisation can X join that will help to transform her/his beginning Marxist political understanding into a more mature form? It can’t be done through a “non-caucusing tendency of opinion”.

Thrown as individuals into the relaunched yet again SA, the great majority of even those ex-DSP members who imagine themselves functioning as cadre within it will soon find that impossible. If political events produce some kind of influx of left activists into the SA, the ex-DSPers will end up trying to “educate” the new members in conjunction with other ex-DSPers in a manner that many of the new members will regard, not without reason, as manipulative. In the more likely situation that the SA continues to vegetate, there will be no-one except other ex-DSPers to be trained as cadres — in theory only, since there will be no cadre organisation to train them. That is a recipe for cadre retirement.

James P. Cannon, a lifelong US revolutionary socialist whom the DSP used to look to, once wrote: “Lenin’s greatest contribution to the success of the Russian Revolution was the work of preparation for it. That began with the construction of a revolutionary party in a time of reaction, before the revolution; and the Bolshevik Party, in turn, began with Lenin’s theory of the party.” What does the dissolution of the DSP into the moribund SA prepare? Presumably, before DSP cadres become further demoralised, it will produce a moderately increased visibility for the SA. But does it build anything lasting? No, it is a destructive operation, not a preparation for a larger revolutionary socialist party.

The sad end of the DSP will set back the necessary construction of a revolutionary workers’ party in Australia. But the damage to the socialist movement will be less if those who run the SA start to pursue their SA project in a less factional manner: if they drop the sectarian attacks on the rest of the socialist left for not sharing the DSP’s fantasy view of the SA as a “left unity” project. Since the left is not yet able to unite in one organisation, let’s at least seek maximum unity of action in building progressive movements and campaigns.

We in the Revolutionary Socialist Party will continue to seek comradely discussion and collaboration in action. DSP members are welcome at our public forums, and to our January 2-5 Marxist educational conference, being held at 65 Myrtle St, Chippendale (opposite Peace Park). We say to them: When experience convinces you, as we think it will, that the Socialist Alliance is a dead end, we hope you will join us in the task of building a revolutionary socialist party.

[Allen Myers is the assistant editor of Direct Action and a member of the RSP.]