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3120The Real Lessons from the Vietnam Anti-war Movement in Australia

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  • Gould's Book Arcade
    Oct 26, 2003
      The Real Lessons from the Vietnam Anti-war Movement in Australia

      I would like to thank the Editorial Board of Green Left and the DSP for
      running my piece on the Johnson demonstration and for the careful way it was
      edited and the sensible juxtaposition of it with a smaller article, and with
      some pictures, and with the two-page spread by Doug Lorimer in the middle
      pages, giving the DSP leadership's version of the first part of the history
      of the Vietnam anti war movement.


      Lorimer's narative, which is an updated version of his and John Percy's
      account of the anti war movement and, to some extent the origins of the DSP,
      has some substantial defects by omission. The DSP leadership's present,
      evolved, conception of the DSP and its predecessors is used as Lorimer's
      starting point. This ahistorical perspective, which gives too much weight to
      the DSP and Resistance Tendency, as a self-conscious entity, is extrapolated
      back into time, in this case to 1965, as if the development of Resistance
      and the DSP in their present form, was a globally significant political
      development totally contained in embryo, in the initial struggles of the two

      John Percy has been giving this DSP-centric version of the events for years,
      in his potted lectures on the history of the DSP. Some of the questions
      raised by Doug Lorimer's and John's slant on these historical questions are
      also relevant to Lorimer's new substantial article about Zinovievism,
      polemicising with Louis Proyect. This current Links article by Doug is
      useful and timely, because it codifies the DSP leadership's view and it has
      got to be taken in conjunction with Lorimer's account of events in the anti
      war movement. I'm working on a longer piece about these organisational
      questions. Doug Lorimer's account of the history of the anti war movement is
      relevant to this broader discussion.

      I observe here, as I'll observe at greater length in a forthcoming article,
      that the John Percy / Doug Lorimer school of historiography owes almost
      everything to the Zinoviev / Jim Cannon school of history, the high points
      of which were Zinoviev's "History of the Bolshevik Party" and Jim Cannon's
      "History of American Trotskyism", both of which started out as series of
      lectures, like John Percy's. The great weakness of this school is that,
      trawling back into the history of the movement, it attempts to codify a
      schema about the origins of the Bolshevik Party (Zinoviev), the American SWP
      (Cannon), and the origins of the DSP (Percy), which asserts that the evolved
      form of the organisations, at the point of writing, represents a deliberate
      evolution, that had been taking place self-consciously since the foundation
      of the group.

      This approach in the first two cases, was a mystification and is even more a
      mystification in the case of the DSP, and Doug Lorimer incorporates this
      kind of mystification into his history of the anti war movement.

      For a start, the Vietnam Action Committee, when it was founded in 1965,
      included, as leading personalities me, the late Mary Greenland (Hall
      Greenland's mother), Rod Webb and John Percy, not just me and John. At that
      point, John's main sphere of activity actually was the Sydney University
      Labor Club where he worked, along with Hayden Thompson, Col Waddy, Russ
      Darnley, and members of the CP like Anne and Jean Curthoys and others.

      The early period was more complex and contradictory than the DSP narrative
      suggests. It is true to say that we were powerfully influenced by
      "Intercontinental Press" and the American SWP, and that we fought hard for
      the "Withdrawal of all Imperialist Troops" slogan to be the central focus of
      our agitation. However, in Australia, we had a more mixed attitude to civil
      disobedience and even to slogans like "Victory to the VietCong". We weren't
      as absolutely flatfooted as the American SWP in opposing all civil
      disobedience, and in opposing the slogan "Victory to the VietCong". While
      our emphasis was mainly on mass action for withdrawal, we occasionally,
      ourselves initiated a bit of creative civil disobedience to get publicity,
      for instance, the initiating sit down in Canberra in May 1965, the sit down
      demonstration in Pitt Street in October 1965, and the blocking of Johnson's
      cavalcade in October 1966. In analagous circumstances, the US SWP totally
      opposed all civil disobedience, in my understanding of their history.

      Later on, when draft resistance, which was a kind of civil disobedience,
      commenced, we gave it critical support. However, we also tried to raise the
      notion of resistance inside the Army. When other forces in the movement
      raised the "Victory to the VietCong" slogan, we fought hard to continue the
      main emphasis of the Vietnam Action Committee on the withdrawal of
      Australian and American troops, but we didn't object to other groups
      carrying "Victory to the VietCong" placards in our demonstrations.

      We were heavily influenced by the very practical initiatives of the American
      SWP in the US anti war movement, but we weren't in any sense simply clones
      of the US SWP, of which some people, particularly the Stalinists, accused

      In his account, Lorimer makes an overly quick leap from the early phase of
      the Vietnam Action Committee to the struggle in the mobilisation committees,
      for a withdrawal policy in the Moratoriums. He tends to focus his account
      entirely on the role of the Percy Resistance groups in this development,
      which is a self serving historical nonsense.

      If readers go to the open letter to Moratorium sponsors, which we put up a
      couple of months ago on the Ozleft web site, they will find that document,
      which initiated the successful struggle to give the youth and the left equal
      say in the running of the Moratorium, was a bloc of all the youth and
      far-left organisations that were around at the time. In particular, the bloc
      was spearheaded by the two wings into which the old VAC and Resistance had
      split. The main personalities in both groups are there with signatures on
      the open letter, along with a very significant range of others. In the
      practical day to day running of both Moratoriums, this bloc of the left
      forced not only Jim Percy, but also a number of other of the signatories to
      the open letter, on to the Steering Committee of the Moratoriums at various
      stages. At the staff level, in the Moratorium office, representatives of the
      militant bloc included Ros Cheney, Rod Webb's then companion, who was for a
      while in the DSP, but later left it, a woman from Workers Action whose name
      I now forget, and other militants. If you look study the list of signatories
      to the open letter, all of whom were significant leaders in the antiwar
      movement, three of them were members of the Percy faction (one of whom, Tony
      Dewberry, is now a member of Socialist Democracy in Melbourne), five of them
      were broadly members of Phil Sandford's Workers Action group, and seven of
      them were people who sided with Gould at the time of the split in
      Resistance. At that stage in developments, the Percy group was a smaller
      influence than the other groupings, in the general revolt of the left of the
      movement against total Stalinist dominance in the antiwar movement.

      In the same timeframe, the 1971 Socialist Left in the ALP was mainly an
      insurrection of all kinds of indigenous ALP rebels. All the non Stalinist
      socialist groups, including Phil Sandford's group and also the two wings
      into which Resistance had split, also joined it. Despite the split in
      Resistance, all the socialist groups, including my opponents, the Percy's,
      voted for me for Federal Conference Delegate against Frank Walker MLA, at
      the vital SL preselection meeting for the 1971 ALP Conference. I beat Walker
      by 90 votes to 10 at this preselection meeting. Obviously the split in
      Resistance hadn't become as fixed and frozen as it did later.

      All this was possible because, at this stage, the hardened split between the
      then embryonic DSP and the group around me, (most of whom went on to have a
      fit of party building enthusiasm ourselves, when most of us at different
      times moved into the orbit of the also recently founded SLL.) had not become
      completely fixed.

      It was only after the 1971 ALP State Conference, and the Federal Conference
      to which I got elected by half a vote, that the differences between the
      groups hardened rapidly. After the high point of the two conferences, some
      of the technocratic indigenous laborites quickly lost interest in the
      Socialist Left, and the DSP forces, decided to push to take it over, and by
      marshalling Resistance youth, a number of whom weren't even at that stage
      members of the ALP, they managed to get the numbers at a Socialist Left
      conference, against a coalition of George Petersen, myself, some indigenous
      ALP activists and Workers' Action. The issues in dispute were a bit arcane
      and focused around two alternative formulations of a programme for the
      Socialist Left, but the substantial outcome was the Percy group's successful
      capture of the committee of the Socialist Left. The Percy group's capture of
      the committee was overshadowed by another development, the main
      personalities leading the Percy group's activities in the ALP were Roger
      Barnes and his subgroup of the Percy organisation. As the first celebrated,
      significant incident of the Cannonisation of the Percy group, the Barnes
      group was deliberately driven out (by organisational means) of the
      developing Percy organisation, with the aim of homogenising the Percy group.
      Immediately after this, the Percy group ditched ALP work for a year or two,
      though they came back into the ALP at a later stage. Having captured the
      1971 Socialist Left, they therefore promptly liquidated it. This is all
      described in some detail in the section of George Petersen's autobiography
      on the question, which is on OzLeft.

      These circumstances get us to the problem of John Percy's and Doug Lorimer's
      party model, extended onwards through the last 30 years of the 20th century.
      All the Leninist party building exercises of the late 1960s and the 1970s
      and the 1980s, into the 1990s, including the DSP and the SLL, took over a
      Zinovievest "party building" formula. The main features of this formula were
      a hermetically sealed internal life, with an all powerful "leadership",
      however ill qualified, that resolves all political questions at the
      leadership level, and preserves a kind of cabinet solidarity in relation to
      the membership of the organisation. In general, differences within the
      leaderships are resolved before they are taken to the memberships, and
      members of these leaderships are expected not to campaign among the members
      for their point of view, outside of strictly limited pre-conference periods,
      with an obligation to form a faction, and start a war, if serious
      differences arise. This leads either to the strangulation of political
      developments or to unnecessary splits. When you get a situation, as you have
      now in almost every country, of a proliferation of socialist organisations
      with this kind of internal regime, each organisation has particular
      shibboleths and obsessions, which have been produced by their specific
      political evolution, mainly inside the leadership of the organisations.

      In the external world, you then arrive at the situation we have now. A
      number of revolutionary socialist groups face each other off, in the spirit
      of the analogy that I use about ant colonies and bee colonies, all with some
      variant of the frozen-in-time Zinovievist party model. Even in an
      organisation like the Socialist Alliance, which is ostensibly a vehicle for
      socialist unity and regroupment, the problem of the Zinovievist model of
      organisation, clearly persists. The main organisations, particularly the
      DSP, operate within this Zinovievest framework, even in the Alliance, which
      clearly gives the DSP leadership enormous practical weight, both in relation
      to any opposition forces in the DSP, and particuarly in relation to the
      smaller groups in the Alliance. Any serious tactical or political discussion
      takes place first in the DSP leadership. It is then transmitted downward
      into the DSP, and the DSP leadership, who run the largest group, have no
      difficulty in getting the Alliance to do whatever the DSP leadership
      requires. Despite the presence of a number of different organisations in the
      Alliance, very little frank horizontal political debate takes place between
      the members of the various socialist groups, because they all have a
      similar, Zinovievest, structure, which acts as a bulwark against serious
      discussion. That is an enormous political problem.

      One feature of Doug Lorimer's narrative about the history of the Vietnam
      anti war movement that underlines its mechanical, retrospective, Zinovievest
      character, is when he uses the royal plural for the DSP and Resistance,
      extrapolated back to 1965. Well that is a royal plural, used by him, to
      create an ideal model of an organisation and current, seven or eight years
      before he appeared on the scene. It gives the notion more magisterium, but
      it's politically very misleading. The present political organisations of the
      far left evolved over time, and their present finished form bears little
      resemblance to how they started out.

      How they started out had some negative features, as John Percy will tell you
      at length, but in my view it also had some positive features which, in due
      course, I will describe at length. It's not much use, however, to tell the
      story in the way Doug does, tidying up the history to suit his present point
      of view. This approach to historical questions is common to most groups that
      think they are "Leninists", and it tends to miseducate members badly. Air
      brushing out of history all the contradictory and complex individuals and
      developments that don't fit your view, and replacing them with an idealised
      narrative, is a bad way to proceed, both historically and politically. Doug'
      s little bit of air brushing, of course, is tiny compared to the massive
      falsifications of history that we've seen in the 20th century, particularly
      the Stalinist falsification of history, which was on a gigantic scale,
      backed up by an enormous state apparatus. Nevertheless, Doug's little bit of
      air brushing contains within it a possibly embryo of the monstrous greater
      historical falsifications with which we are all familiar. When writing
      history, Marxists ought always keep these issues in the forefront of their
      minds and give coverage and weight to all the elements and individuals in
      the historical situations that they are discussing. That is a much better
      way of writing history from a Marxist point of view than some one-eyed
      narrative, usually written to serve a narrow political purpose. Such
      narratives can usually be refuted with a certain amount of effort. So why
      bother writing one-eyed narratives in the first place!

      PS. I've just read Doug Lorimer's second piece in today's Green Left.
      Lorimer reduces the whole of the political struggle in the movement against
      the Vietnam War to a struggle against Stalinism and laborism, personalised
      as a struggle against the Stalinists and the Laborites by his
      retrospectively idealised political tendency. Politically this is a very
      dangerous nonsense. The struggle about the Vietnam War proceeded within the
      broad labour movement, and within the ALP, and for most of the period, the
      bulk of the labour movement, and many of its significant leaders,
      particularly the courageous Arthur Calwell, led that struggle. That was also
      how all of us in Sydney, in the Trotskyist tradition, including the Percy's,
      viewed it at the time, and formed the framework for how we participated in
      this process. In the case of the Percy's, it formed the basis of how they
      participated in it right to the end of the struggle against the Vietnam War
      in 1975. It wasn't until their dramatic change in political orientation in
      about 1985 that their view of those questions changed. I own a set of the
      first 76 issues of Direct Action, and the totally different orientation of
      the DSP current towards laborism is absolutely clear in them. Rewriting your
      own history in the dramatic way that Doug Lorimer does on the Labor Party
      question is right at the heart of the problem of Zinovievism in the writing
      of socialist history.

      - Bob Gould, October 2003

      Gould's Book Arcade
      32 King St, Newtown, NSW
      Ph: 9519-8947
      Fax: 9550-5924

      An open letter to all Moratorium sponsors

      At the beginning of the renewed Vietnam Moratorium Campaign the framework
      must be set up for its successful organisational functioning, and many
      lessons can be learned from the last one. To a large extent the
      organisational framework sets the tone of the movement, and inadequacies of
      the previous campaign should be recognised and remedied.

      The Moratorium is a mass campaign that is united around the common demands
      of immediate withdrawal of all allied troops from Indochina and an immediate
      end to conscription. But its various organising committees are coalitions of
      antiwar groups that necessarily differ widely in their views of society, the
      war and the peace movement.

      The Moratorium office
      One of the first decisions of the sponsors in the last campaign was to set
      up a Moratorium office on politically neutral grounds to administer the
      decisions of the meetings. Susan Fialkin was appointed to act as full-time
      administrative officer. The office was equipped with one duplicator, one
      typewriter and one telephone. This was adequate in the first stages of the
      campaign, but when the volume of work began to increase no action was taken
      to extend the facilities to cope with it. Members of AICD who had been
      assisting Susan Fialkin, in fact found it necessary to work almost full-time
      on the Moratorium in the AICD premises.

      When Susan Fialkin resigned and Deidre Jones and Susan Thornton were hired
      to replace her, a large amount of work was still being done in the office.
      But due to the lack of staff and equipment, even more work was done by AICD
      although this was never requested by the office staff, or discussed at the
      meetings of the secretariat, committee or sponsors. For example, inquiries
      began to be directed to the AICD premises, publicity material was delivered
      there for distribution, newsletters and reports were written and roneod
      there. In the final stages of the campaign, even small, routine
      organisational meetings were held in the AICD library, in the BWIU hall, and
      in the Boilermakers and Blacksmiths' hall. This arbitrary and abrupt
      changing of meeting places caused unnecessary confusion and resulted in poor
      attendance of meetings.

      Members of the secretariat voiced their opposition to this but the majority
      of full-time workers on the secretariat were also full-time workers of AICD.
      This came about as AICD decided to pay five of their own staff to work for
      the campaign - although they have now claimed $2000 of their expenses from
      the Moratorium funds.

      Although Susan Thornton and Deidre Jones were in the Moratorium office
      full-time and attended most secretariat meetings they found they were
      becoming increasingly unaware of day-to-day events and decisions. For
      example, Ros Cheney was appointed as publicity officer and had been working
      from AICD for some time before Deidre, Susan and some other members of the
      secretariat found out. Also, Ken O'Hara, who had offered to take on the
      difficult task of ordering and distributing publicity material, did this
      from AICD and deliveries were made to those premises. People had to be
      increasingly directed there to order and collect material.

      It finally reached the stage where AICD was working flat out for the
      Moratorium and the Moratorium office itself was practically non-functioning.
      In other words, due to its inadequacy the Moratorium office became an
      adjunct of AICD.

      The secretariat
      The functioning of the secretariat should also be looked at in relation to
      the running of the office. The role of the secretariat is to carry out
      decisions made by the sponsors. The original secretariat of seven was
      enlarged to 13 due to the general lack of activity by most people involved.
      It became obvious that a secretariat member, to carry out his role
      adequately, had to spend most of his time on Moratorium work, and this was
      only possible for those who did not have other job commitments.

      Proposals for the coming Vietnam Moratorium campaign
      We see the need for the following measures in this campaign:

      That an independent Moratorium office with at least two separate rooms be
      set up on politically neutral grounds adequately equipped with a
      switchboard, filing cabinets, several typewriters and duplicators, etc
      (these could be borrowed or hired).

      That the Moratorium office be staffed with at least eight full-time people,
      administering all areas of publicity, finance, organising trade unions, on
      campus, etc.

      That the office staff should be co-opted to the secretariat and receive
      equal pay (we suggest a figure around $40 per week.

      That this staff be drawn in a representative way from all sections of the
      antiwar movement. This would avoid political bias.

      That the staff and facilities of the Moratorium office be enlarged at any
      time necessary, and that the principle of representation apply to new people

      The two principles that we wish to stress are non-imposition of any
      political line on the Moratorium, and the non-exclusion of any sponsoring
      organisations from its decision-making. That presupposes a completely
      independent central base.

      The duties of the secretariat members - carrying out sponsor decisions,
      investigating recommendations and implementing general organisational work -
      is a full-time occupation. On previous experience it is obvious that at
      least eight people will be required to work full-time at the height of the
      campaign. To do this adequately, these people need to work from one base and
      be in constant communication with each other.

      Deidre Jones, Moratorium office; Susan Thornton, Moratorium office and
      secretariat; Phil Sandford, secretariat; Sandra Hawker, secretariat; Jim
      Percy, secretariat; Haydn Thompson, secretariat; Jim Mulgrew, secretariat;
      Tony Dewberry, Resistance; Peter Burnett, Barricades; Helen Voysey, Student
      Underground; Warwick Donley, Sutherland Moratorium Youth Group; Stephen
      Bock, Glebe Moratorium; Jeni Thornley, Balmain Moratorium; Hall Greenland,
      Sydney University Labour Club; Barry Robinson, Sydney University Student
      Representative Council president; Deidre Ferguson, Sydney University
      Staff-Student Moratorium Committee; Barbara Levy, Womens Liberation; John
      Geaki, University of NSW Student Representative Council president; Robynne
      Murphy, University of NSW Student Youth Mobilisation Committee; Mel Bloom,
      editor, Honi Soit; Joanne Horniman, Macquarie University Women's Liberation
      Group; Peter Voysey, Macquarie University Student Mobilisation Committee
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