The State of Marxism in Australia


Lou has invited the Oz mob to comment on the Left In Australia. This a fairly big topic but I will have a go at it in a couple of stages. I will also copy this post to Rob and Tony in the hope that they will add their bit.



1. First anecdote

I have been meaning to put on the list an anecdote or two about the DSP meeting I addressed on Indonesia. It was an instructive occasion for me. The platform was chaired by the DSP. Among the four speakers there was a DSP 'expert' on Indonesia. and some 40 members and supporters in the hall.

Various members got up and spoke and they had obviously been cued to make a contribution. I have no problem with this cadre training whatsoever. It is vital that people get practice in public speaking. Rallies and speeches are still crucial.

I spoke around the refusal of the students to link up with the rioting masses. There had been reports in the bourgeois press about the students thanking the army for keeping them free from 'contamination' (sic) from the masses. I said that only when the student movement was thoroughly contaminated by contact with the masses would it emerge as a revolutionary force.

Now at the end one of the DSP heavies got up and corrected me and put the line that the students were the vanguard and it was the army that had kept them isolated. This was obvously a prearranged thing. Someone from the leadership was given the task of ensuring clarity and purity of line.

I was accordingly amused to read in the following Green Left Weekly a very good report by Max Lane detailing the factions in the Indonesian studnet movement and saying that a vote to include the masses in the student protests had been defeated by the dominant conservative factions. So the line had changed.

But for me it was all a reminder of how a Leninist organisation operates. I tel you truly I felt shudders in my DNA.

2. Second anecdote

I only met Jim Percy once and never actually spoke to him. He came to Brisbane in 1975 during discussions around the fusion process between the Communist League (Mandelite) and the SWP/DSP (Barnes). Percy was unlike any leftist I had ever met and I have met none since like him either. He had what struck me as a strange folksy persona. I rememember also being fascinated or perhaps horrified at his great fat belly. I could not keep my eyes of it. But he was genial and avuncular and had what I think would be regarded as the common touch on say the Oprah Winfrey show.

A fellow member of the CL said that the secret to understanding the way Jim Percy talked was to read Jim Cannon. I did that and it is true; there was the same folksyiness masking a ruthless cunning. Certainly Percy outmanoeuvered the pathetic Mandelites of the Communist League. The vicousness of the operation left me with an abiding hatred for the DSP which has only just begun to fade.

But there was a price to be paid of course for the crushing of the Communist League. In Brsbane the DSP have remained 'foreigners'. I find it difficult to explain but in the kind of parochial world that is Queensland they act and sound like Melbournites. Now I am conscious that coming from an Irish migrant that might sound strange, but the DSP have never it seems to me been organic to Queensland.

2. The state of play in Brisbane.

As I always say I cannot talk for the rest of Australia but this is a run down of what I think the state of play is on the Left here.

A. The ISO and its progeny

The ISO organisation does have a presence. But it has never recovered from a series of disastrous splits beginning in 1981 which culminated in the expulsion of leading cadre and founding members.

The organistation is led by a fanatic, Ian Rintoul, who unbelievably has a cult of personality around him. I was once asked by a breathless teenager if I knew Ian. I replied that the bastard had expelled me before she was born.

The role of the British IS in the emergence of Rintoul as The Leader is something that one day they should be held to account for. The IS is still however the only major rival to the DSP in Brisbane.

There is an off-shoot in Brisbane of the ISO and it is called the Socialist Alternative. It does have a monthly magazine and a small prescence in Brisbane. As far as I can see there are no political differences between ISO and Socialist Alternative, but perhaps Tony can help here.

There is a third group of ex-Socialist Alternative and ISO folk and they have just formed a discussion group. Their base is the University of Queensland.

B. The DSP

The DSP does have Green Left Weekly which is something of a jewel in their crown. It is as close to a decent non-sectarian paper as we have but it is not close enough. Still sales and subscriptions are edging up I believe.

They are standing in two seats in the state Election here and they will be lucky to get 5%. For reasons I have touched upon they just cannot make a breakthrough in Brisbane. A friend of mine who hates them said that they are always formally correct in what they say and always wrong in every particular context. It is hard to explain this but I think it is a curse of the neo-Trotskyist organisations that they always have a line now matter when and where they are.

I swear that if they were zapped through hyper space along the 5th Dimension and reached a new world, they would immediately call for the formation of the revolutionary party. It is because they have this quality of always being correct that they always seem wrong or to be fairer out of focus. I have said before if you have a line which you think suits all times and all places then invariably it sutis no particular place.

Lest anyone think I am being sectarian here, I have used my contacts with the anarchists to call for a vote for the DSP in the coming elections. And in the process I had to take a lot of flak from the Dreamers of the Absolute.

C. Which brings me to the Anarchists.

They are led here in Brisbane by a charismatic individual called Brian Laver. He is a personal friend of mine and we work closely together. But I have always said that Brian's idea of a united front is to get all the Marxists into one room and insult them non-stop with harrangues about Kronstadt, Spain and Makhno.

The Brisbane Anarchists are followers of Murray Bookchin. They have a strong emphasis on revolutionary municipalism and are currently fighting the local government and the devlopers over the proposed tramway for their home suburb - the West End.

Brian thinks this is *the* struggle and he has put a lot of energy into it. I recognize its impoartance but other issues are I think taking precedence.

Still of all the goups in Brisbane the anarchists have the most effective infra-structure and could be a real force to be reckoned with. I have always thought that the natural leftist mode for Australians is Anarchism because of the prevailing dominance of petty bourgoeis values.

BTWA it is interesting to see them echo Bookchin's criticism of Chomsky. the latter had a very successful visit here two years ago and does have a significant following among intellectuals. But the Bookchinites take him to task for not being sufficiently utopian.

d. There are also a few comrades mainly in the late 70s who were former members of the Communist Party of Australia. They have tended to group round the Progressive Labor Party. However since the sudden death of PLP founder member Bob Leach his comrades in Brisbane seem lost and are making little impact.

e. There is also a Realo tendency in the Green Party here which actually has the distinction of bringing down a Labor government. In 1993 they voted strategically and a conservative coalition came to power in Queensland. I think the Swedish Greens are the only other Green Party which has the honour of throwing out a Social Democtic government. Since they did this the Greens have been persecuated without mercy by mnyself in the local Anarchist paper and it has had an effect. Their vote is down from 9% to 3% according to the latest polls. Not entirely due to me of course, but trust me I have hurt the treacherous bastards.

My second post will be more general and will touch upon what I think are the 'objective conditions'. It would be good though if someone else from Oz would comment on the above or give the view from their locale.

--Gary McLennan


I hesitated to send the below, especially since I identified sectarianism as a big problem in my bio. Still needless to say these people are ones we work with all the time in any significant campaign. I haven't been around the Left that long (10 years) - well, I suppose it depends on your perspective. I have no grand, overall analysis - but I will give you my impressions from Melbourne, formed over various campaigns and meetings.

DSP The DSP is the direct successor of the Aus. SWP. They changed their name for the same reasons that the old eastern europe CPs started inserting the word democratic into their names. The DSP/SWP oscillated between stalinism, trotskyism and environmentalism depending on whatever was in vogue. During the 80s they went around with t-shirts emblazoned with "Gorbachev is it!", and they were fond of chanting "Cuba Si, Yankee No!". They operate on a pretty dishonest basis of front groups and lying about their politics.

The DSP are consistently the most right wing "left" group in every campaign. An anecdote..... A recent student rally voted en masse to occupy an office building. The DSP had a leaflet prepared in advance condemning it - they knew that the students were well to their Left. For the DSP every militant movement is condemned as being not a mass campaign and therefore ultraleft. But the truth is that they can't stand not being in complete control of it - true stalinist heritage

ISO(International Socialist Organisation) and SA (Socialist Alternative) In terms of real, active membership, SA is probably bigger than the ISO in Melbourne. That is because the expulsions that led to the formation of SA were almost exclusively in Melbourne. The ISO chucked out almost all the vibrant young members and upcoming cadre(who were capable of thinking for themselves).

The ISO seems to just be repeating old patterns. They are capable of a tremendous of amount of voluntarist activity, which gives the young recruits a hard manic edge (or maybe its just stress), but they sooner or later burn out - largely without exception.

SA is more relaxed (sometimes I think too relaxed). We have formally the same politics as the ISO. We do our study groups from the same sources - we sell the same books and pamphlets. Our magazine relates more to a campus orientation. Our numbers have held their own over the last 3 years which believe me is no mean feat. We have a good morale and high level of participation from members. In campaign meetings we find ourselves making almost exactly the same interventions as the ISO comrades, our meeting topics are often identical. Yet there remains a vast gulf between us that I can't quite understand. If you ask me its a crazed kind of guilt on the part of ISO headkickers - they know what they did was a rabid, nasty kind of job, yet their formal politics is meant to be against that sort of thing. You would think it would be SA comrades who would feel bitter about what happened, but it was actually a relief even though we were starting out from scratch. Its the ISO (the majority of young members excluded) who can't get over what they did.

There are a number of other small grouplets in the Melbourne Left including Militant (both types), Workers Power and the sparts still cling to life. Not being in student politics I don't have much to do with them these days - you know crazy each in their own way, but at the same time its good to have rev comrades from other groups in the big campaigns. I'll exclude the sparts from that - I still have believe they are a CIA plot against the Left.

Oh my.... this is my life? It would be quite depressing if it wasn't so funny and serious at the same time.

--Tony Hartin


Well, here's my two bobs worth. Having read both Gary's and tony hartins contributions I would like to take a slightly different tack. The left in Australia I would assert can be divided into the "vanguardist" and loosely organised left.The vanguardist left encompasses the organisations such as the DSP, ISO and Socialist Alternative, Militant, and a number of grouplets such as Socialist Party,and formations emanating from the maoist tradition,and on the periphery some anarchist groups. None are anywhere near a mass party. The experience of the last couple of years ( at least here in Victoria) has shown that there are a significant number of people who take action around issues. To cite just some examples, the struggle to save Richmond Secondary College which stretched over months in 1992 saw many people engage in prolonged picketing and occupation of the school despite the very brutal attacks by the police on a daily basis. The struggle against the Grand Prix which again saw many thousands of people mobilised in prolonged action over months , the hundred thousand people on the streets last year against changes to workers compensation, and the hundred thousand people mobilised around the attacks on the wharfies recently. Much to the chagrin of the vanguardist left there is also a layer of activists who have had many years experience in the union, community and left organisations.

Many former members of DSP, Healyites, Socialist Party, and other revolutionary organisations, would be included in this, people who have not departed revolutionary politics, but have sought to work in different ways. Since the mid 1990's a realisation has grown that to be tied into the "build the revolutionary party" schema was not relevant to the real state that existed, that working in organisations where the primary focus was this rather then building a movement had proven to be self defeating. This layer began to discover as we worked around issues and campaigns that though there was a diversity of backgrounds in revolutionary organisations, what united was a desire to escape the inevitable sectarianism that came from the Build the Party mode of operation. Many of the campaigns such as election campaigns for independent candidates, a Socialist Alliance,and rank and file organising within unions was scorned by DSP/IS/SA, etc., the vanguardist left, who inevitably sought to recruit prominent activists. In 1996 some people from Communist Intervention,(ex SLLers) Solidarity(FI Supporters)began discussions with Militant, and a number joined Militant on the basis of working towards a regroupment perspective.

At the same time the Progressive Labour Party was beginning to emerge and formally Militant was involved . During 1997 the PLP in Victoria began to grow, not so much from the academic left that had characterised its beginnings interstate but from the involvement of new people to politics coming from the union and student milieu. As well a number of left trade unions and unionists became involved in the conduct of public meetings and a trade union camp attended by just on a hundred people. Earlier this year those who had joined Militant left over the issue of the PLP. Today, whilst the PLP is still embryonic, it has managed to build important links with a number of unions, Electrical Trades and now the Metal union, and has established two functioning branches, one being in Geelong in regional Victoria.. The Geelong branch has been very active around local environmental issues and was able to co-ordinate a public meeting of over 1000 people concerning a planned toxic waste dump planned.The PLP is holding its first national conference this month. The vanguard left consider the PLP as a bit of a joke, however of any political formation it has to date been able to bring a whole new layer of people into political organisation precisely because it does not set as its overriding goal the need to build the party, but rather to build community and union alliances.

As Gary has so excellently pointed out in his post, the history of the DSP is the history of erratic twists and turns against the backdrop of a small leadership group dispensing the correct line. There are many anecdotes of the line changing, i.e on the green movement, soviet union, trotskyism, etc where the leadership has changed its line and wholesale expulsions taken place of those who do not become immediately converted. Jim Percy in his day even took to expelling people by telephone, without any right of appeal. A friend of mine was expelled in the early 80's while on a party school because she would not move out of a house in which a person who had previously been expelled lived. Whilst the DSP has a newspaper, any number of properties and presents internationally as a mass party, because of its lack of internal democracy it does not have a significant impact in Australia and is not trusted by many activists. The tragedy is that, like with its mentor the SWP in the US many thousands of good revolutionaries have been through it and lost to radical politics because of its internal functioning.

As events unfolding around the MUA have shown there is a wind of change blowing through Australia at present. If the left is to meet the challenges that are emerging then it has to move from the sectarianism that has so characterised it to embrace new ways of organising. In answer to Jims question, John Tully, Bill Deller, Lyn Beaton all who joined Militant last year have now left and there are no usec supporters left in Militant. I was a member of solidarity but did not join militant. Nita Keig who was part of a split in mid 1980's from the DSP was involved with a group called I think Communist League, affiliated to the US SWP. They did little more then Cuba work and act as agent for Pathfinder Books in Australia.

--Ken Howard