Revolutionary organisations and the history of the DSP

7 December 2017
Rjurik Davidson

When the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) dissolved into Socialist Alliance in 2010, what was once the largest revolutionary Marxist group in Australia effectively signed its own death certificate. Less than a decade later, the group is a shell of its former self, in both numbers and influence.

In terms of historic tragedies, this is a minor one. Yet tragedy it is, especially for the Australian left, for at its height the DSP was a formidable organisation with its own particular tradition forged over 30 years. If it never quite moved past the size of a propaganda group – its membership peaked at more than 300 high level cadre and when its youth organisation Resistance was taken into account, may have closed in on 350 or even 400 activists, operating in all major cities in the country – its contribution to the radical history of Australia was manifest.

Part of the tragedy is that there is now scant memory of the strengths of the DSP’s tradition, strengths of which John Percy’s new history, Against the Stream, is an essential reminder.

At its best, the DSP upheld the revolutionary traditions of Marxism, its members dedicated and highly trained, and its resources (built on 30 years of financial struggles and sacrifice) significant, including several valuable inner-city offices. How did the DSP reach its pre-eminent position and what led to its dissolution? Importantly, were these two related?

The DSP had four important historical phases, each of which is worth some consideration.

The first phase (in reality, the DSP’s pre-history), was described by Percy in the first volume of his history. A small group of radical activists emerged as leaders of the anti-Vietnam-War movement and struggled to create a new revolutionary party, consciously opposed to the Stalinism of the still mass Communist Party of Australia and the reformism of the left of the Australian Labor Party (ALP).

The second phase, which Percy begins with in this second volume, is a continuation of the first, beginning in 1972 when the DSP (briefly called the Socialist Workers League and then the Socialist Workers Party) was founded and developed an early orthodox Trotskyism. Here the DSP assumed the identity of a kind of Australian version of the US Socialist Workers Party (US SWP). All of its essential political outlooks, organisational principles and methods were adapted from the US party, and the distinctive figure in understanding the organisation is probably James P. Cannon, whose fine The History of American Trotskyism and more questionable Struggle for a Proletarian Party, were taken as manuals of sorts for party building.

This was a healthy, growing organisation, not a sectarian chapel. Any reader will be impressed by the sheer vibrancy and breadth of activity of the organisation Percy outlines, not just the workers’ struggles but also the women’s and gay liberation movements, Indigenous struggles and the slowly emerging environment campaigns. The DSP was a serious organisation, committed to building movements and equally to a powerful and organised democratic (and democratic centralist) organisation.

At times these two goals existed in considerable tension.

From the US SWP, the party had learned the strategic importance of building an organisation of militants or “cadre” led, not by a star individual, but by a team. Indeed, the demands it placed on its members were surely the highest of any Australian socialist group that has yet existed. The party had internal “norms” to which each member was expected to conform – including an amount for weekly regular donations (in addition to the membership dues), number of paper sales (expressed in hours) and participation in internal organisational fractions (and external campaigns). Members were “transferred” from city to city as the need arose.

Herein lies one of the curiosities of Percy’s book for the casual reader. Like the earlier volume, it seems unusually concerned with details, lists of names and reports, sales figures or financial projections. The very form of Percy’s book thus reflects the physiognomy of the organisation itself: deeply serious and ambitious about these educational, organisational and propaganda tasks.

If the book might sometimes have benefited from tighter editing, I doubt Percy would have accepted this. In his eyes it might have given too distorted a sense of how the group operated. At times, though, Percy’s account is oddly lacking in its articulation of the relationship of the organisation to the movements or class, which sometimes appear not so much as the terrain on which the organisation moves but appendages to explain the decisions of the party. This party-first attitude was a foundation that ran through the organisation all the way through to its dissolution into the Socialist Alliance.

Thus, if the DSP began essentially as an Australian iteration of the US SWP, it also carried with it many of that organisation’s weaknesses. Some of these weaknesses Percy mentions but others are worth emphasising. The first, specifically adopted from the US SWP, was a certain over-homogenisation of the organisation. If the cadre of the DSP were highly educated, it was in a specific canon, which included Marx and Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, some of Mandel, a great deal of the US SWP writers such as George Novak, Evelyn Reed and Joe Hansen, and the victorious Cubans, particularly Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.

In the 1980s, a party school (complete with a building) was set up and ran a one-month version over the summer and a four-month version during the year. The curriculum was based on the work of the above theorists. Whatever the qualities of these works, some clearly of the deepest value and importance, the DSP never had a particularly broad conception of Marxism (I recall one leading member in the early 2000s explaining to me that there was only “one correct Marxist line”; all the rest were non-Marxist). The notion of a heterodox Marxism, or a generous attitude that accepted multiple currents, was alien to some in the DSP. There was little reading of the Hegelian Marxists Lukács or Gramsci, the structuralists Althusser and Poulantzas, or those of other traditions such as Chris Harman and Tony Cliff.

So on the one hand, the cadre of the DSP were theoretically developed and the internal discussion carried on at a very high level of sophistication (this was helped by the existence of a youth group, Resistance, which did most of the introductory forums and education work). On the other, there was a narrowness that couldn’t help but impact the ability for rethinking to occur.

Even at this early stage, this homogeneity played out in other ways. The DSP was profoundly formally democratic – has there ever been a more formally democratic organisation in Australia? – but it never dealt with internal differences particularly well. Having a cohort of members trained in James P. Canon’s Struggle for a Proletarian Party probably didn’t help. Its opening lines included instantly factionalising ones: “Political struggles in general … are carried on under the pressure of social forces and reflect the class struggle to one degree or another … At the present time the pressure of alien class forces upon the proletarian vanguard is exceptionally heavy”. If these were political expressions of over-homogenisation, we will see how the organisational emphasis on “norms” and other logistical tasks was to play out in negative ways in the 1990s.

The DSP’s third and most interesting phase occurred between the early 1980s and 1990. During this time, the party faced one of the key moments in the history of any small group: how would it transform itself from a mostly propaganda group into a larger (even if still relatively small) political party with real social weight? How would it shift from a propaganda group that intervened from the margins (often in the face of the larger CPA) to one that would lead from the centre? It was in this phase that the DSP forged its own distinct personality and tradition, and broke significantly with the sectarianism that has been such a congenital blight on the Trotskyist movement.

What were the key elements of this transformation? The first was spurred by the degeneration of the US SWP, which now was pursuing a suicidal “turn to industry” in a period when industrial working class struggle was in decline. The close friendship of the DSP leaders, in particular Jim Percy with Peter Camejo, probably accelerated the party’s decision to forge more of an independent identity, jettisoning the turn to industry and in doing so questioning the nature of Trotskyism itself. At this time, Camejo was thinking through the problem of sectarianism. In his pamphlet, Against Sectarianism: The Evolution of the Socialist Workers Party 1978-1983, he wrote: “It is rather curious that this movement, far from short of writers and theoreticians, has never produced any study to explain why the majority of people considering themselves ‘Trotskyist’ in the world belong to sects”.

Doug Lorimer later wrote an equally important, and more theoretically solid, critique of the US SWP called The Making of a Sect: The Evolution of the US Socialist Workers Party (a collection of Lorimer’s best writings is well overdue; he was one of the pre-eminent experts in the work of Lenin internationally). In 60 years (as of my writing these lines, 90 years), Trotskyism barely produced a single mass party. In the face of the revolutionary upheavals during these years – the upsurges and revolutions of the 1930s, those of late 1940s, those of the 1960s, the breakthroughs in Latin America such as Cuba and Nicaragua and the later “Pink Tide”, the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, the current politics crises in Europe – what explains this signal failure?

One aspect was an obsession with particular shibboleths encoded in a written program, whether that was the theories of permanent revolution or of state capitalism, or an obsession with Trotsky’s writings (the Transitional Program, for example). Each was used as a point of differentiation and justification for the “correctness” and “independence” (i.e. sectarianism) of a particular current. For Trotskyism, in the beginning was the word. That is, it remained a predominantly idealist current, filled with intellectuals but rarely leading significant struggles.

Recognising the obvious error of the industrial turn, the DSP broke from the US SWP and followed its own path. This break from Trotskyism sent the DSP back to read Lenin in the original, rather than through Trotsky, Cannon or Mandel. There they found a thinker considerably different to the one they had been taught about. Two misconceptions were cleared up.

First (as Eric Blanc and Lars Lih have recently been arguing), they discovered that Lenin had always held to his so-called two-stage theory of revolution in Russia (see for example his very clear reaffirmation of it in The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, written in 1920, after the revolution). This opened up a new world for the DSP, which now understood the importance of the anti-imperialist movements, predominantly in Latin America but also in places like Vietnam, which were still in the “democratic” stage of their revolutions and unable to pass immediately to the socialist stage.

The lessons came thick and fast. The principle, the DSP understood, was internationalism rather than an “international party” (echoing, for example, Gramsci’s evolution in the mid-1920s). A close study of the successful mass movements showed that there were genuine revolutionaries outside the Trotskyist movement who had developed organically out of the struggles in their national contexts – in Latin America, South Africa, Indonesia and even Europe.

Thus the DSP left the Fourth International, at the time the largest Trotskyist “international”. Jettisoning the adherence to an idealist written program and a particular “international” allowed collaboration with these groups for the first time. Suddenly, the DSP became a much more modest organisation, which realised there were lessons to learn from others rather than a program to teach others (a ludicrous proposition when you yourself are but a propaganda group of hundreds with limited mass experience).

Second, Lenin had considered the ALP a bourgeois liberal party, and by the second congress of the Third International, he explained that he considered most of the social democratic parties as fundamentally bourgeois parties, not as workers parties (Gramsci affirmed this idea with Togliatti in the Lyons Theses). In Australia, this helped explain the functioning of the ALP, which came to power in 1983 and was one of the first of the former social democratic parties to embrace and implement neoliberalism. A wave of protest from its betrayed supporters rose, most obviously against its three uranium mines policy, its crushing of the pilots’ and nurses’ strikes, its punitive elimination of the BLF, its destruction of free education and the implementation of the Accord, which resulted in declining real wages for workers.

The ALP was at this point clearly exposed as one of the two parties of the capitalist class, forming a part of the dominant system of bourgeois hegemony in this period: a pattern of alternating governments of centre left and centre right, each increasingly indistinguishable from the other. Even if the ALP had caught much of the trade union movement in its hegemonic nets, the most politically conscious activists were abandoning it in the 1980s.

New openings emerged to the left of the ALP as these activists flooded from the party. To refuse to orient to them (as the CPA initially did) was to orient to the more backward sections of the class – i.e. it was to commit what Lenin would have called an “economist” error of diluting the party’s attitude to that of the backward workers rather than trying to raise class consciousness.

The DSP realised that these new opportunities were revealing themselves. This was the moment when a “broad left party”, or what we might call a “workers’ party”, might have developed in Australia. The Nuclear Disarmament Party emerged, partly in response to the ALP’s three mines policy. The DSP threw itself into the NDP until the liberal “leaders” scuttled the process when they realised that they would be forced to submit to party democracy.

Another consequence of jettisoning Trotskyism was that the DSP was no longer infected with the Stalinophobia that had isolated so many other groups internationally. After the NDP collapsed, the DSP went through a regroupment process with a number of socialist currents, most importantly the Communist Party and the Socialist Party, both of which were starting to search for new trajectories. As with all significant unity attempts, these drew around them significant “independent” activists. These processes again failed.

Finally, the DSP tried to participate in the formation of the Greens, the second possibility for a “broad left” party, but the Greens proscribed members who belonged to other parties. None of these projects came to fruition, but they remain part of the reason the DSP became the largest, most significant group on the Australian left. It is here, in this new non-sectarian attitude, which the deepest lessons from the DSP’s history can be found. The party’s pamphlets of this time (The ALP and the Fight For Socialism, What Politics for a New Party? ) remain fascinating reading, proof of the DSP’s creativity and openness.

As with all setbacks, the consequences of these failed projects are still felt today. Where might we have been if things had worked out differently?

Once the options had closed up in the early 1990s, the DSP returned to a “party building” phase (the “fourth phase”), which refocused on the “party building basics” on which all activist organisations must be founded: propaganda, education, organisational and logistical consolidation and the recruitment of individual members. Percy’s narrative ends here, as the organisation returned to a simpler existence, with fewer openings, and renamed itself as the DSP (at the end of 1989, having been until this point the SWP) in the face of the collapse of Stalinism. Every now and then a battle would open up, and the party would throw itself into it: the battles against voluntary student unionism, the anti-Jabiluka-mine campaign, the fight on the docks against Patrick Stevedores and the federal Liberal government, the Free East Timor campaign.

Despite these openings, the general trend in political activity was downwards. At the moment it seemed it might be on the upturn again with the anti-globalisation movement, the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001 unleashed a right wing backlash that silenced the left for almost a decade. The death of Stalinism, the right wing assault after 9/11 and the low level of struggle could be felt by every activist in this time.

Early signs of trouble were evident in this period, as the organisation tended to promote to its middle leadership – the organiser positions and branch secretaries – members who were the best organisers in a logistical sense rather than the most capable political leaders. This aligned well with the propaganda approach of the group, for these middle layers were hardened, competent and ensured the stalls were at the rallies on time. Yet contained within this was a fatal flaw: they were in the most part people who had little experience in leading movements. They followed the leadership without much independent thought.

Again, it should be emphasised that this was partly a function of the external pressure of the low level of struggle. Yet as I have mentioned, this was always a characteristic of the Cannonist tradition to which the party still adhered, which valued a certain kind of homogeneity. And it would play out with fatal consequences when the DSP entered the Socialist Alliance.

Throughout the ’90s and early 2000s, several small oppositions raised concerns about some of these aspects. They were given short shrift by the leadership, who interpreted the admittedly often erroneous analyses of these oppositionists (mine included) as attacks on the party project as a whole, to be dealt with sharply and crudely. The mid-level leaders went along with the leadership without questions.

This helps explain why, when it became so obvious that the Socialist Alliance was a dead project (as the other socialists groups left one by one), the DSP could not turn itself around, despite its high level of training in the Canonist tradition. Indeed, when the faction led by John Percy, Doug Lorimer and others realised that the DSP tradition was dissolving itself into a loose and directionless network, they failed to convince a single member of the mid-level leadership during this time. As these things often seem to do in small and isolated groups, and in keeping with the leadership’s responses to earlier oppositions, the faction fight turned nasty.

The faction that held on to the DSP tradition – in all its best and less salutary aspects – was expelled. Some years later, this group merged with Socialist Alternative and thus, in a certain sense, the Socialist Alliance came to fruition, showing that the IST groups had jettisoned the project too early. If DSP members and members from the IST tradition can co-exist now, why could it not have occurred earlier? The possibility had been there for a larger group in the early 2000s, though such unity attempts are always risks and one can never know just how they might have turned out.

Again we feel the failure of this project in the hidden substratum of our existence. The retreat of the IST groups contributed to the fatal political errors of the DSP leadership, which now slowly transformed its conception of the Alliance so that it became more than a regroupment project. As Percy and others recognised, now it was to be a broad party network, in the vein of such groups as Die Linke, the French Nouvelle Parti Anticapitaliste or the Portuguese El Bloco – only without the membership or social weight of these, and without the external struggles to nourish it. Gone forever was the notion of a Leninist or Cannonist party.

The DSP’s dissolution into this castle in the sky is a lesson that errors in political line and the search for too easy short cuts can lead quickly to organisational degeneration. In this case, the leadership compounded the error by refusing to make an about-turn. Indeed, the process eerily resembles the dissolution of the Communist Party of Australia into the short-lived New Left Party back in the early 1990s, a fact that should send shivers through the remnants of the Alliance’s membership. What’s left of the former DSP are still clutching onto the Socialist Alliance project like sailors on a sinking ship. Meanwhile, the few survivors drift away in lifeboats, crying for them to swim away. Some may still hope the sailors will bravely let go and swim to safety, but time is running out.

In the meantime, John Percy’s history is an essential reminder of what they once were, of all that was best about the DSP. He is right to suggest that today’s socialist activists could learn much from that tradition and, with luck and with its help, finally succeed in building a mass socialist party in Australia capable of affecting politics on a national scale.

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