A revolutionary intellectual

31 October 2013
Jorge Jorquera

The following speech was delivered by Jorge Jorquera at a memorial celebration for Doug Lorimer, held in Melbourne on 25 October. Doug was a revolutionary for all of his adult life, a leader of the Socialist Workers Party, which became the Democratic Socialist Party, and more recently the Revolutionary Socialist Party – which fused with Socialist Alternative earlier this year.

It’s a great moral challenge to be a revolutionary intellectual – especially so in times of fanfare. In the heroic times, everyone wants to be on our side, including those who come to socialism by way of ideas and intellectual curiosity.

This is not just a question of class origins. Sure a worker intellectual – the sort of organic intellectual Gramsci spoke of – has a better chance of remaining loyal, but even so desertion is always on the cards. Ideas can go only so far; without heart, without soul, the best revolutionaries can still falter. Those who knew Doug knew that beneath his rough exterior, there was profound revolutionary soul. Doug could well have pursued other interests, but he had none.

I shared a house with Doug for a while back in the late ‘80s – the Dulwich Hill party school, in fact. And it was certainly evident in every aspect of his life that he had no intellectual interests other than those that could be measured in the currency of revolutionary materialism.

Other cultural interests Doug and I shared as housemates were restricted to bad Hollywood action films, shared over alcohol and usually a meal that would likely feature only in a parody of Master Chef. The only gourmet food Doug knew was spelled M-E-A-T. I am sure that since his passing some comrade must have visited Doug’s favourite Sydney restaurant – the Balkan restaurant – and ordered one of those huge meat platters in his honour.

Doug’s simplicity and humility kept his intellectual interests within the framework of revolutionary tasks. For some, this probably made him something of a second rate intellectual – if you measure such things by style and bourgeois prominence.

But if you measure intellectuals by their practical contribution to the movement and hence to history – then Doug was a real giant. Doug was not one of those intellectuals whom Trotsky sharply dismissed as “too blasé, so to speak, too cynical, for a revelation, even the most moving, of the cultural significance of socialism to conquer their souls”.

Neither can Doug’s proletarian commitment be reduced to the sort of intellectual and journalistic hackery that some red professors are sometimes lured into. He constantly applied himself to new issues and problems of theory and strategy.

Only today I was looking over some of his writings and stumbled across his “An Outline of the Theory of Relativity”. In it Doug demonstrates his talent not only for developing but also for explaining ideas. Doug rises to the heights of intellectual reflection but manages to return to the earthly class struggle – direct but not reductionist.

Reflecting on the theory of relativity and Einstein’s new theory of gravitation, he says: “The dialectical materialist view of time and space as structurally interconnected, basic and universal forms of the existence of matter thus not only received physical confirmation but was given further development.”

At one level it was a tragedy that Doug’s intellect was called upon to serve the movement in such a period of ebb in the class struggle. Still, it served our movement well. His contribution should be remembered. History after all is made as much by contributions often not acknowledged as it is by those remembered as great.

When, as more or less orthodox Trotskyists, we were grappling with the revolutionary developments in Nicaragua, Doug helped our movement develop our critique of permanent revolution; when the so called “death of communism” enveloped our movements in retreat and defeatism, Doug helped us remember Trotsky; when our long term example of the US Socialist Workers Party spiralled into sectarianism, Doug wrote what remains the most balanced and materialist analysis.

In more recent years, I could not help thinking about what personal impact the factional struggle in the old Democratic Socialist Party must have had on Doug. But, however disappointed he probably felt, he kept to the task. When my brother Roberto and I met with Doug and John Percy [founding member of the Australian SWP, now member of Socialist Alternative] after they had been thrown out of the DSP, we both felt a massive relief to back in the same party as these comrades. Doug was still cheerful and somehow hopeful.

His last theoretical foray remained unfinished. His very partial notes critiquing the orthodoxy of the “transitional program” as open to pragmatist interpretation could not really develop in the framework of the small Revolutionary Socialist Party. These notes remain mostly a small incursion beyond what Doug had already written back in his 1992 article “The importance of theory and the Marxist method”.

As he said there, “The interplay of social forces in the class struggle is extremely complex. Marxism offers the best method of analysing the many-sided movement of contemporary society, enabling an individual to discern and hold on to the main line of development through all the ups and downs, twists and turns in the class struggle.

“Pragmatism, on the other hand, which takes things ‘as they are’ – without grasping the contradictory forces operating below the surface in historical perspective – sets a trap for the unwary middle class intellectuals. Deluded by appearances and overawed by episodic conjunctures of events, they too often mistake a lull in the struggle for the enduring relations of the major classes – and slide back from Marxism to the pragmatic liberalism they had earlier abandoned.

“We are seeing a similar retreat today in the wake of the collapse of the Stalinist regimes … The best insurance against such backsliding is a thorough understanding of the theoretical foundations of scientific socialism combined with active participation in the building of a revolutionary workers’ party.”

It is the greatest pity that Doug did not get the chance to contribute to the new “collective thinking machine” (to use his words) that we are now part of.

Though Doug was anything but a poet, I could not think of more apt words to capture who he was and what his example signifies, than those of the Salvadoran revolutionary poet Roque Dalton:

“Whatever his/her quality, his stature, her finesse, his creative capacity, her success, the intellectual can only be to the bourgeois: servant, clown or enemy. The clown is an ‘independent’ servant, who manages nothing better than the limits of his own liberty and who one day will confront the people with the argument that the bourgeoisie ‘really has sensitivity’.

“He or she who is really a servant can wear the uniform of lackey, or minister or cultural representative abroad … The enemy intellectual is above all else the enemy intellectual. She who claims her wages not in flattery or dollars, but in persecutions, prisons, bullets. And not only does he lack a uniform or tails or a suit, but every day he ends up with fewer things until the only thing he has is a pair of patched shirts but clean as unparalleled poetry.”

Compañero Doug Lorimer, presenté!

Read More

Red Flag
Red Flag is published by Socialist Alternative, a revolutionary socialist group with branches across Australia.
Find out more about us, get involved, or subscribe.

Original Red Flag content is subject to a Creative Commons licence and may be republished under the terms listed here.