Re: Labor History - Bob Gould's response to Peter Boyle about my critique of Jim McIlroy's pamphlet 'Australia's First Socialists'
- By Bob Gould
I seem to have inadvertently stirred up several hornets' nests at
once. I don't want anyone to lose sight of my initial major point in
criticising Jim McIlroy's pamphlet, which is that the DSP leadership
uses labour history in a very narrow, instrumental, retrospective way
to attempt to ram home several simple, crudified political points.
In the course of this didactic exercise, the DSP leadership narrows
the real history of the Australian workers' movement and of the
historiography about it, and of past debates about this working class
Peter Boyle's primitive response, in particular, just underlines this
basic point, and no one so far from the DSP leadership has tried
seriously to challenge me on this question. I wish they would, so we
could seriously discuss the issues involved.
The trivial attempts to demonstrate the DSP leadership's interest in
labour history verge on the ridiculous. Since the turn away from the
labour movement and the associated turn away from labour history, in
about 1986, there have been nearly 1000 issues of Direct Action and
then Green Left Weekly, a well-edited and in some ways lively weekly
As the attempted defenders of the DSP leadership have themselves
demonstrated, the amount of coverage of labour history in those 1000-
odd issues has been derisory.
Boyle ridicules my "toppling shelves bookshop" and accuses me of
advertising books. Well, I do that, quite a bit, and that's no crime,
particularly when they're the labour movement history books that I've
been talking about in this discussion. For many years, as part of my
bookselling activities I've concentrated rather energetically on
building up a unique collection of about 30,000 books on Marxism,
Russian history, Trotskyism, anarchism, the Australian labour
movement, Irish and Latin American history, women's studies and other
matters relevant to the workers' movement.
I take pleasure and pride in the fact that this unique collection is
available to the radical public at reasonable prices. The shelves
certainly sag a bit, but the political function is obvious, and
generation after generation of rebels have acquired a fair bit of
their education from this collection. (More than 1000 of the leftists
books from this collection are now catalogued on the web and we are
we are adding to this list all the time.)
The problem, from Peter Boyle's point of view, of course, is that the
literature of the workers' movement is far wider than Marx, Engels,
Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Castro and James P. Cannon, although these
important revolutionaries are well represented on my shelves.
At some moments of heightened political tension the leaders of
different Marxist groups with which I'm arguing, particularly the
DSP, obviously try to discourage their members from browsing in my
shop, but this always breaks down over time and, in particular, the
young and rebellious are impossible to keep away from my collection.
One of the things that is pretty noticeable to me from my bookselling
activities is that most of the leaders of the Marxist groups in
Sydney are no longer particularly interested in looking at socialist
books or browsing through leftist material.
Maybe they use the internet a bit, but it's my impression that the
leaderships have mostly settled into a routinist intellectual rut,
getting by with a few texts from the past (mostly texts endorsing the
prerogatives of leaderships) and a cursory surfing of the bourgeois
One of the things that, in my view, totally undermines the capacity
of these "leaderships" to lead anything except small sects is the
dreary routine existence into which these leaderships seem to have
settled. Lenin, Trotsky, and Jim Cannon for that matter, weren't like
that at all. (By way of contrast, the people who systematically work
their way through my extensive collection of revolutionary literature
tend to be the youth, students, oppositionists and rebels, and there
are a very large number of them. This circumstance seems to me
appropriate to the political purpose with which I've constructed the
collection. Knowledge expands the mind, and an extensive study of the
literature of the workers' movement helps equip people for effective
On my shelves are something of the order of 3000 titles on the
history of the Australian labour, Communist, socialist and
progressive movements. About 1000 of these books, on all sorts of
aspects of the labour movement, the trade unions, working-class
political parties, labour movement sociology, etc, have been
published in the 19 years since the DSP's turn away from the labour
Jon Strauss, if he likes, can turn his search engine to finding how
many of these books on labour movement questions have been reviewed,
discussed or argued with in Direct Action or Green Left Weekly. He'll
find very little with his search engine.
Green Left has some good features, but serious coverage of Australian
labour movement history and literature is not one of them.
Peter Boyle asserts that insofar as there may be a weakness in this
area, which he of course doesn't concede, the DSP will do better in
the future, through the Socialist Alliance (without prejudice to the
DSP leadership's insistence that they've done well in the past
I put it to Peter Boyle and the DSP leadership that they would be
well-advised to try to set up some seminars and discussions on labour
movement history in collaboration with all the other forces in the
labour and progressive movements.
Something set up for serious discussion on that basis might succeed,
and might even bring some clarity. Narrowly DSP or Socialist Alliance
events on labour history are unlikely to succeed, and they are
certainly unlikely to produce much clarity.
My associate, Ed Lewis, has obviously prodded a very big hornets'
nest by referring to Jim Cannon's well-known and rather unashamed
exaggerated hostility to "petit-bourgeois intellectuals".
I have immense respect for Cannon as a revolutionary agitator and
leader. James P. Cannon was one of my first literary mentors. I
believe that the balancesheet made of Cannon by Tim Wohlforth, in the
book that Gerry Healy suppressed, "The Struggle for Marxism in the
United States", was by far the best book so far on Jim Cannon,
although I await with considerable expectation the redoubtable
Canadian Marxist historian Bryan Palmer's forthcoming political
biography of Cannon.
One of Wohlforth's main points is that Cannon frequently tended to
resort to organisational solutions to political problems, and that
his exaggerated hostility to "petit-bourgeois intellectuals" was
associated with this tendency to look for organisational solutions to
political problems, which were often posed by "petit-bourgeois
This weakness in Cannon, while not politically defensible, was
comprehensible in a workers' leader, such as Cannon, given his real
experiences and history. Regurgitated in the year 2004, by a voluble
and opinionated "committeeman" like Peter Boyle, Cannon's political
weakness in this area becomes something approaching farce.
A number of the committeemen (and committeewomen) of the DSP
leadership spend all of their time working in a dedicated and
committed way for the socialist movement. The negative feature of
this dedication is that it's often carried out in one building, where
the leaders spend most of their time with each other, or with other
DSP members, which tends to narrows their horizons dramatically. They
tend to know a bit, in a force-fed way, about "Leninist principles of
organisation", Cannon, Zinoviev, Castro and Che Guevara and the Cuban
Revolution, etc, etc, but their real experience and knowledge of the
Australian labour movement, the workers' movement and even Australian
society in general, remains rather narrow and primitive.
They plead pressure of organising work, journalism etc, when trying
to justify the narrowness of their horizons. For the past 30 years we
have lived through a period of relative capitalist boom and
expansion, by and large, which makes the US boom of the 1920s look
like a blip. Jim Cannon commented on the 1920s boom in the US that it
tended to undermine the development of the revolutionary movement,
and to produce a situation where the members of the small communist
movement were swimming against the stream of the prevailing affluence
in society at large. How much more is the effect of the past 30 years
on the cadres of the socialist movement.
In these difficult conditions, inAustralia, the DSP has been
relatively successful in building and preserving a smallish political
apparatus, but it appears to me that the circumstances in which the
DSP leadership works in this political environment have lowered its
political-cultural level in relation to the world outside,
particularly the workers' movement in the world outside.
In a fairly careful way this morning, before he went off to do the
Green Left stall, Simon Butler quotes Trotsky explaining that from
his point of view the petit-bourgeois characteristics of
intellectuals came not really from their social origins but from
where they stood on the party question.
Leaving aside the limitations of this view in relation to
intellectuals who play a progressive role on many questions despite
the fact that they know nothing at all of any party question, this
view of Trotsky, which was valid up to a point, needs closer
If one does a serious overview of the life work and writings of Lenin
and Trotsky, it emerges that, for them, by and large the party
question was intimately tied up with the function of the party as an
instrument for social change and social revolution. Both Lenin and
Trotsky broke with and busted up quite a few parties when they
concluded that these parties no longer fulfilled the necessary
Towards the end of his life Lenin, in particular, became deeply
alarmed by the negative characteristics emerging in both the Russian
party and the Russian state that he had been largely instrumental in
creating, but his attempts to tackle these problems were,
unfortunately, abruptly cut short by his illness and death.
When a small socialist group freezes into a smug, self-satisfied
sect, with no realistic perspectives for activity in the workers'
movement, the party question tends to turn into its opposite, and the
leaders of the sect tend to become totally obsessed with the
organisational aspect of the party question, particularly with their
almost divinely endowed prerogative to be the leaders of the small
In relation to these problems, I don't claim to have all the answers,
but I'm fiercely aware of where a number of the problems lie, on the
basis of an extensive life experience and a fair amount of study of
these questions. Unfortunately, knowledge and understanding often
comes from negative experience.
It's not so long ago that Peter Boyle was working himself into a
lather about the notion of a "labour aristocracy", which he clawed
brutally out of Zinoviev and Lenin in the different circumstances of
1916 and plonked in front of us, wriggling, in the totally different
circumstances of Australia in the year 2003.
He does the same thing in his inscrutable, ignorant way, with the
notion of "petit-bourgeois intellectuals", who he crudely pictures as
being directly corrupted by the ideology of the bourgeoisie, and he
even paints crudely exaggerated little pictures for us of
these "petit-bourgeois intellectuals" being directly bribed by the
Neither in his overdone and inaccurate current construct of
the "labour aristocracy" nor his equally overdone construct
about "petit-bourgeois intellectuals" does he seem to have even
noticed the changes that have taken place in both the working class,
the new social layers and the petit-bourgeoisie, which can be
described both as the proletarianisation of intellectual labour and
the intellectualisation, automation and computerisation of manual
Junior staff members in universities are forced on to individual
contracts, which is a brutal form of proletarianisation. Wharfies, by
and large sit in little booths pressing buttons to move containers
with cranes and computers. Nursing, perhaps the fastest growing
section of the workforce in advanced societies, combines hard and
difficult manual work such as lifting and moving patients, etc, with
detailed and complex medical procedures, psychology, the use of
computers, monitors, etc.
Many students working their way through university, which is
necessary because of the fees, spend their part-time working lives in
the ruthless, super-exploited environment of call centres.
In Australia, constant mass migration from changing sources for
nearly the past 50 years, combined with the changing nature of work
and the workforce, has reconfigured the working class and changed its
racial and educational composition, making it considerably more
diverse than in the past. There has also been a certain political
reconfiguration. The broad split in society expressed politically in
the split between the trade-union-based Labor Party and the
conservative parties generally supported by the big bourgeoisie, has
been modified a bit. A new electoral formation has emerged on the
left, the Greens, located almost entirely, electorally, within the
new social layers, while the Labor Party has retained its electoral
grip on the overwhelming majority of the traditional blue-collar
working class a large part of which is now composed of relatively
recent migrants of non-English-speaking background.
Small socialist groups, particularly the DSP, have been now running
for a considerable number of yeas in elections against the big
electoral force of the Labor Party, and now the Greens, with no
recognisable impact. The function of a trained Marxist leadership,
the kind of leadership that the DSP aspires to be, with all their
study of Lenin, Cannon and organisational principles, haven't been
capable of elaborating any kind of realistic perspective to bridge
the gap between the situation of the small socialist groups and the
allegiance of the overwhelming majority of the progressive half of
the population to Laborism and the Greens.
If the DSP leadership had spent more time studying the concrete
details of the history of the Australian workers' movement than the
time they have spent developing an abstract and crudified "Leninism"
they might be a bit closer to elaborating a serious perspective for
Neither of brother Boyle's desperate, archaic intellectual
constructions about either "aristocracies of labour" or "petit-
bourgeois intellectuals" directly bribed by the ruling class are of
much use in building a serious socialist movement in modern
conditions, or in elaborating a realistic perspective towards that
In this kind of ideological sphere, Peter Boyle succeeds in sounding
like a very real caricature of New Class theorists such as Paddy
McGuinness and all the right-wing dingbats who prattle about a new
class of members of the petit-bourgeoisie, who they say peddle
poisonous "anti-popular" ideas.
Getting back to the question of labour movement history, at the
recent seminar that Boyle talks about, I had a good look at the
literature that had obviously been on sale to the DSP members and the
youth who had been attending the DSP school in the previous week.
The DSP leadership is pretty good at drumming a few basic ideas into
people in an eclectic way in a fairly narrow framework. I was
fascinated to see carefully photocopied large chunks of Cannon almost
entirely on organisational questions, including long chapters from
the History of American Trotskyism, Cannon's entertaining,
interesting, but politically speaking his worst and most self-
indulgent book, which embodies the political weaknesses that I've
been discussing above.
In the history of the revolutionary socialist movement, Jim Cannon
was a courageous, important and towering figure, and from where I sit
it's very sad to see his weaknesses and errors being used as a kind
of intellectual club to beat anyone, particularly some of the youth,
who dare to question the organisational conceptions of the DSP
I'm not saying that a serious and comprehensive knowledge of the
Marxists classics, the works of Lenin, Trotsky, Cannon, etc are not
extremely useful to socialist agitators. They obviously are, and I
have the greatest respect for all those socialist thinkers. In a very
real sense we stand on the shoulders of those who've gone before.
Their legacy, however, has to be reworked and analysed critically. In
particular, it has to be tested and reworked in relation to the
experience, politics and society of one's own country, in this case
The old Communist Party tended to create a culture that soaked CP
members in Australian history. This approach had some nationalist
defects, but taken as a whole it was pretty useful, and it was hardly
accidental that the older generation of Marxist labour movement
historians developed their historical knowledge in the CP environment.
Their serious historical knowledge and their critical faculties
really developed more substantially when they broke with and
transcended the Stalinist high culture, but nevertheless the
preoccupation in CP circles with Australian history gave them a
serious grounding on which to build, and their intellectual building
necessarily included the negation of Stalinism.
By way of contrast, the modern neo-Trotskyist groups, particularly
the DSP, have tended to throw out the baby of Australian history with
the bathwater of Stalinism, so you get the grotesque phenomenon of a
younger generation of Australian Marxists who know a great deal about
Trotsky, Zinoviev, Lenin, Cannon and Castro, but very little about
the history of the Australian workers' movement.
To brutally bowdlerise a writer from the past: who knows Jim Cannon
who only Jim Cannon knows?
The vigorous but guarded responses on the Green Left list to Ed
Lewis's observations suggest to me that these questions are a real
hornets' nest in DSP circles.
In due course we'll put up on Ozleft some extracts from Wohlforth's
book appraising the life and work of Jim Cannon, and other relevant
(The methodological issues in Australian history, about which I'm
challenging the DSP leadership, are also raised in a systematic way
in my polemic with the historian of the CPA, Stuart MacIntyre
- Some new material on Ozleft relevant to recent discussions about
labour history on this list.
Humphrey McQueen's afterword to the 1986 edition of A New Britannia,
in which he revises his original thesis on the working class in late
19th and early 20th century Australia
Humphrey McQueen's Laborism and Socialism (1971), in which he
outlines his original A New Britannia thesis
A couple of articles on method in labour history:
The right wing won't write by Greg Patmore
Comparative Labour History: Australia and Canada, by Greg Patmore and
Gregory S. Kealey http://members.optushome.com.au/spainter/Canada.html