Getting serious about public sector defence

Wednesday, October 16, 1996

By Dick Nichols

If ever there was an abused term in the lingo of the left, it's "sectarian". For most, it just means "small" or "irrelevant". So sleek Labor MPs and trade union potentates dub all left organisations "sects": they're big and important, and we're not.

Then there's widespread prejudice that left organisations are intrinsically "sectarian". Try to convince people of the socialist alternative to capitalism or sell the left press in the street, and for some you may as well come from Salt Lake City.

But now the International Socialist Organisation's Robert Stainsby (Write on, GLW #249) has unearthed another misuse of the term — criticising other left groups, in particular his own. Answering my criticism of ISO behaviour at August 23 Community and Public Sector Union mass meetings (GLW #247) Stainsby claims it was "sectarianism" on the part of a DSP member to "denounce the ISO from the stage" and for GLW to have "the cheek to lecture us about sectarianism".

Stainsby misses the point by a country mile. In calling the ISO's behaviour sectarian, I had in mind the old formulation of Marx: "The sect sees its raison d'être and its point of honour not in what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from the movement".

The ISO's present shibboleth and point of honour is that we can't call on the Senate to act on behalf of working-class interests without deepening illusions in parliament. So the ISO couldn't support a CPSU National Challenge motion which (among other things) demanded that the Senate defend the public sector against Howard's attacks.

But whether or not such a call leads to deeper illusions in the Senate depends on one small point — how the Democrats, Greens and Labour act. If they block, say, the privatisation of the CES, those illusions might well be strengthened, but a critical aspect of Howard's vandalisation of public services will have been blocked — not a bad price to pay.

And if the Senate accepts CES privatisation, then illusions in the Senate opposition parties as defenders of working-class interests will be weakened — the exact opposite of what the ISO claims.

(By the way, socialists have been calling on parliamentary parties to carry out policies in the interests of working people ever since the Bolsheviks called on the capitalist Russian government to pull Russia out of World War I. Were Lenin and Trotsky also failing "to take a clear stand against parliamentary illusions"?)

The point of the National Challenge motion was not only to force a tougher stand from the Senate, but to launch what the ISO claims to want most of all — a serious industrial campaign featuring joint action between CPSU members and others under attack from Howard, like the students who were striking three days after the CPSU mass meetings.

It also tried to connect with the actual consciousness of APS workers, who don't need to be lectured too much about the need for a serious industrial campaign, but to be shown a course of action that has a chance of winning.

By contrast, the ISO motion for a 48-hour strike of CPSU members alone, besides having absolutely no chance of winning, generally ruined the possibility of that vote getting up (except in Brisbane, where the ISO withdrew its motion). That's the truth, which I notice Stainsby doesn't contest.

Ironically, Stainsby's defence of the ISO against the charge of sectarianism exhibits quite a few classic features of the sectarian cast of mind. For example, there's reconstructing the facts to fit the story line. "I made it clear to those comrades that the ISO would dissent from the motion", Stainsby says.

But no-one else remembers events this way. And other National Challenge supporters, who had accepted various ISO suggestions in drafting the National Challenge motion, were surprised when the ISO turned up to the mass meetings with a motion of their own. That's why a Democratic Socialist Party member had to "denounce the ISO" (i.e., explain to confused and disappointed CPSU members why there were two left motions).

It appears that the left will again present a single motion to the next round of CPSU meetings. That's a valuable step forward. Whatever debate and compromise it takes, unity around a line of militant resistance to Howard is too precious to be lightly put at risk.
[Dick Nichols is the Industrial Work Director of the Democratic Socialist Party.]