Sunday, November 7, 2010

Have your thoughts been inoculated?

One of the insidious methods of unprincipled politics is that of inoculating one’s supporters against even listening to alternative points of view.

I suspect that may have been the effect, even if we can't ascertain exact intent, of the Labor spinsters who launched a botched smear campaign against Brian Walters, the Greens candidate for the seat of Melbourne in the state election.

The campaign sought to discredit Walters for taking a role, as a barrister, representing Konrad Kalejs, who was accused of being a Nazi war criminal. Further, the smear campaign drew attention to Walters’ work as barrister for Downer EDI over the death of one of their maintenance workers at the Yallourn coal mine and power station.

The campaign backfired, because Walters was clearly taking the jobs that he was allocated in the "cab-rank" system of case allocation, a system which is designed to allow equitable access to legal representation.

One wonders what the Labor spinsters were thinking. Are they just out of touch? Or does this frenzied attack on the Greens serve a purpose? They are unlikely to win back any supporters that have deserted them to the Greens but they may shore up their remaining supporters. Effective smears call into question the integrity of the target in such a way that those fooled by them will not even consider getting the other side of the story. 

Surely the left wouldn't stoop so low?

This kind of gutter politics may well be expected of ALP hacks. What use would the left have for it?

I was struck by an article from Socialist Alternative member Ben Hillier that also criticises Walters over the same issues.

As a friend opined, “Hillier actually manages to construct half an argument, then throws it away in a fit of sectarianism. He manages to play both the ball and the man - equally badly.”

This attack on the Greens came on the heels of Socialist Alternative casting their support behind socialist candidate Stephen Jolly’s campaign in the state election. Jolly is highly critical of the Greens, based on his experience as a councillor in the City of Yarra which has had a Green mayor (who is his opponent in the current state election).

Socialist Alternative had previously declared critical support to the Greens in the Federal election, but emphasised the “criticism” and did little practical in the way of support. Previous to supporting the Greens, they supported the Labor Party at elections. Socialist Alliance campaigners even reported a leading member of Socialist Alternative smugly declaring he was going to vote for “the workers’ party” at polling day, not the Alliance.

Of course I don't object to Socialist Alternative finally supporting socialist candidates; I wonder why it took so long. I do wonder about the way this turn in their tactics is being motivated. Hillier finishes his attack on Walters with the following comments:

Walters has consciously positioned himself as the moderate, respectable, middle-class wing of the Greens. His disdain for the labour movement is evidenced by the fact that he has openly suggested the Greens will consider forming government with the Liberals.

The reality is that for all the Greens posturing as the party of genuine progressives they, like the ALP, routinely pre-select dubious candidates. Walters is one of them – a wealthy upper middle-class shark that sells his skills to the rich and powerful while protesting that he has no choice.

He represents the worst of the Greens party.

I suspect Walters isn't the hard left wing of the Greens, but calling him unprincipled is pretty silly. This kind of ham-fisted attack strikes me as be a bit like the ALP’s attack on Walters. Not in the degree of dishonesty, but in its effect: a crudely exaggerated (or badly misjudged) attack that serves a purpose of mobilising supporters for a change of allegiance.

Stalinists, murderers, and other people you wouldn’t want to talk to…

A recent comment on my blog threw in the comment that “defenders of the USSR and Cuba, like the DSP/Socialist Alliance, have entirely worse record on the question of fighting oppression or understanding ecology.” This was irrelevant to the discussion that was being had, a kind of  “and by the way when did you stop beating your wife” intervention. It’s not just false (among other things, the DSP was a pioneer of socialist ecology in the 1980s and 1990s); it uses the bogey of Stalinism to poison the well. Poisoning the well is a common method of inoculation, and the accusation of Stalinism is pretty commonly used by some of the Trotskyist left (including, in the past, members of the DSP to be fair).

“Stalinist” is a code word that conceals more than it reveals. It is applied equally, but unfairly, to defenders of Cuba and of North Korea, to say nothing of Joseph Stalin himself. In fact to use the term to describe a political current like the DSP which supported the Trotskyist critique of the USSR and China renders the term meaningless.

In the 1990s, the socialist left was so factionalised that discussion of the differences between groups got little further than epithets like this. New recruits most of all had to be inoculated fast less they should be poached by members of another group: one of the first lessons for a new member was what was wrong with the competition. If a member was seen talking to the opposition, an experienced cadre (or three) would be rapidly despatched to intervene, in a kind of herding exercise.

It should not need pointing out that this looks more like the behaviour of a cult than an organisation serious about (and confident in) its ideas. In a breath of fresh air, I have recently seen Resistance activists happy for new members to also join “rival” groups like Socialist Alternative. Resistance is affiliated to the Socialist Alliance, and we are for unity, after all. Socialist Alternative take the herding approach, and dual members, on seeing the contrast in approach, frequently choose Resistance if only for not being so pushy.

A more constructive conversation could be had around the use of the term “socialism from below” (although I think it’s an awkward phrase). It means that only the masses can liberate themselves, by their own actions. The problem is, no-one disagrees with that, in theory, these days. So then the discussion becomes whether Cuban or Venezuelan revolutionary processes are compatible with the self-liberation of their people or not, or at least the debate would become that, if we could get past the abuse about “Stalinism” and so on.

My net-friend John Passant, from Socialist Alternative, recently came up with a clever modification of the “stalinist” label which allows all parties to have it our own way. He called people from the pro-Cuba background of the DSP “Castroites”. It has the advantage that it is literally accurate – we do generally admire Fidel (and Raul) Castro! Yet for his organisation, it still signifies (essentially) Stalinism by another name. A witty compromise, I think, although I don’t know if it will untangle the webs of suspicion already created by past poisoning of the well.

This method of inoculation and poisoning the well obscures the real basis (or, perhaps, lack thereof) for unity on the left. It keeps the competing groups in a fragile isolation from each other. Even if we never unite in one organisation, there is no need to keep this artificial hostility. It discredits the left overall. Look at the success story of the Greens: I have heard one Greens member describe the internal workings of the Greens as “a maze of cliques”, yet they manage to present a united face to the world. If the left is to ever grow we have to find the ways to do this. Otherwise, we will simply be left on the sidelines watching the Greens taking on the ALP. I am not confident they will win that battle, without a strong, active left current (inside or outside their party) to join the fray.

1 comment:

  1. Monty Python put it more pithily


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