Saturday July 30th, the Melbourne chapter of the Platypus Affiliated Society will be hosting a Panel Discussion on “Marxism and Anarchism: Radical Ideologies Today”, at Trades hall in Carlton, Melbourne, starting at 1pm AEST.
It seems that there are still only two radical ideologies: Anarchism and Marxism. They emerged out of the same crucible – the Industrial Revolution, the unsuccessful revolutions of 1848 and 1871, a weak liberalism, the centralization of state power, the rise of the workers movement, and the promise of socialism. They are the revolutionary heritage, and all significant radical upsurges of the last 150 years have returned to mine their meaning for the current situation. In this respect, our moment seems no different.
To act today we seek to draw up the balance sheet of the 20th century. The historical experience concentrated in these two radical ideologies must be unfurled if they are to serve as compass points. To see in what ways their return in our current moment represents an authentic engagement and in what ways the return of a ghost.
Platypus asks the questions: Where have these battles left us? What forms do we have for meeting, theoretically and practically, the problems of our present?
Matthew Crossin – Melbourne Anarchist-Communist Group
Please register for tickets so that we can keep track of numbers.
Entrance via Victoria Street.
Join us at the Curtin across the road for a drink afterwards to continue the discussion.
A livestream of the event will be available over Zoom. If time permits, questions from the online audience will be permitted.
## About Platypus:
The Platypus Affiliated Society, established in December 2006, organizes reading groups, public fora, research and journalism focused on problems and tasks inherited from the “Old” (1920s-30s), “New” (1960s-70s) and post-political (1980s-90s) Left for the possibilities of emancipatory politics today.
This essay by Park Macdougal is reprinted from ‘Unherd’
“The most vulgar, simplistic view of the Left — that dissolves all the supposed distinctions between centrists, liberals, leftists, socialists, communists into one homogenous Democratic blob — happens to be correct.” So writes Benedict Cryptofash, an anonymous Twitter user and self-described “anti-leftist” whose other theoretical contributions include “the Left and Right are fake and gay” and “only libtards care about policy”.
Despite appearences, Cryptofash — his pseudonym mocks the tendency of online leftists to accuse their critics of “cryptofascism” — is not your typical Right-wing internet troll. He’s a Marxist who regards “leftism” as the ideology of bourgeois supremacy, the twenty-first-century equivalent of the classical liberalism that Karl Marx spent his mature years attempting to demolish. “My critique focuses on the Left,” Cryptofash writes in one of his periodic straight tweets, “not because they are worse than the Right, but because they are better than the right at precluding proletarian class consciousness.”
Cryptofash is one of the more visible members of a political tendency known as the “post-Left”, the latest in the endless stream of new and strange ideologies thrown up by social media. Although professing commitment to traditionally Left-wing goals such as anti-capitalism, the post-leftists are defined mostly by their aggressive hostility to both the Democratic Party and the radical Left — including the Democratic Socialists of America and the academic-literary Left of magazines such as Jacobin, n+1 and Dissent.
Aside from Cryptofash, other leading lights include What’s Left? co-hosts Aimee Terese and Oliver Bateman, editor of The Bellows Edwin Aponte, the Irish writer Angela Nagle and a coterie of pseudonymous Twitter accounts, such as @ghostofchristo1. Red Scare co-hosts Anna Khachiyan and Dasha Nekrasova might be considered fellow travellers.
The core assertion of the post-Left is relatively simple: The real ruling class in America is the progressive oligarchy represented politically by the Democratic Party. The Democrats are the party of Silicon Valley, Wall Street, the Ivy League, the media, the upper layers of the national security state and federal bureaucracy, and of highly educated professionals in general. The Republicans, however loathsome, are largely a distraction — a tenuous alliance between a minority faction of the ruling class and petit bourgeois.
Effectively incapable of governing outside the bounds set by the Democrats and Democrat-aligned media, corporations, NGOs and government bureaucracies, the GOP’s real function is to serve as a sort of ideological bogeyman. By positioning itself as the last line of defence against phantasmic threats of “fascism” and “white nationalism” coming from the Right, the ruling class is able to legitimise its own power and conceal the domination on which that power rests.
Leftists, in this telling — whether Ivy League professors or Antifa militants on the streets of Portland — are thus little more than the unwitting dupes of the ruling class. However much they profess to hate the Democratic Party, they are, in practice, its running-dog lackeys. They support the party electorally, harass and cancel its designated enemies and enforce pro-Democrat ideology in the media, academia and the workplace. Crucially, they also help maintain the permanent state of moral emergency that serves as a pretext for the expansion of ruling class power, whether in the form of the increasingly direct control that tech monopolies wield over political discourse or the pursuit of Covid policies that transfer wealth upward and subject workers to a dystopian regime of medical surveillance.
At the core of this diagnosis is the idea that “identity politics”, “antiracism”, “intersectionality” and other pillars of the progressive culture war are mystifications whose function is to demoralise and divide the proletariat.
Similar criticisms have been made by Left-wing writers such as Adolph Reed and Walter Benn Michaels, but whereas these “class-first” leftists tend to regard “identitarianism” as a liberal deviation from authentic leftism, the post-leftists regard the idea that there still is a radical Left meaningfully distinct from the Democrats as meaningless. And because post-leftists see the Democrats, and by extension the Left, as their primary enemy, they have no problem engaging and even entering into provisional alliances with the populist Right, especially on cultural issues. Hence the right-wing memes.
Of course, the post-leftists operate at varying levels of coherence and theoretical sophistication, and most of them have produced far more in the way of podcasts and tweets than sustained considerations of political theory. (Cynically, one might say they are less of a “tendency” than a Twitter clique centered around Aimee Terese.) But it would be a mistake to dismiss it altogether on those grounds — the Dirtbag Left’s Chapo Trap House podcast, after all, has played an outsized role in the revival of millennial socialism, and it is always difficult to predict which of today’s shitposters will be setting the tone of the culture five years from now.
For one thing, the post-Left channels powerful currents of Marxist and post-Marxist critique that have been downplayed or forgotten during the “Great Awokening” and the recent socialist renaissance: from Amadeo Bordiga’s communist hostility to “anti-fascist” collaboration with the bourgeoisie to Christopher Lasch’s early writings about the medical-therapeutic state as a tool of class domination.
But perhaps the most obvious spiritual predecessor to the post-Left is the Italian-American philosopher Paul Piccone, the founder and long-time editor of the critical theory journal Telos and another Marxist who eventually left the Left only to find himself in a strange alliance with the Right.
Piccone began his career as a disciple of Herbert Marcuse and proponent of his theory of “one-dimensionality”, which held that capitalism had advanced to such a degree in the West as to effectively abolish all opposition to itself. With the proletariat co-opted by consumerism, radicals, in Marcuse’s view, should instead look for resistance from racial minorities and other outcasts who had yet to be integrated into the system.
But by the late 1970s, Piccone, reacting to the failures of the New Left, had broken with Marcuse. He began to argue that the new social movements that Marcuse had perceived as expressions of anti-system negativity had in fact been forms of what Piccone dubbed “artificial negativity” — pseudo-radical protest movements generated by the system itself.
Piccone agreed with Marcuse that by the mid-20th century, capitalism had triumphed over all internal resistance. But he believed that because the system required such resistance in order to periodically restructure itself and avoid stagnation, it had begun to manufacture its own controlled opposition. He interpreted the initial Civil Rights movement, for instance, as a product of the system’s need to “rationalise”the segregated labour market of the South, after which it seamlessly transitioned to promoting black nationalism in an “attempt to artificially reconstitute an otherness which had long since been effectively destroyed”. The allegedly radical protest movement against the Vietnam War had, similarly, merely allowed an evolving US capitalist class to abandon an imperial quagmire that had become obsolete.
Indeed, Piccone grew so pessimistic about the “artificial” nature of Western leftism that he spent much of the rest of his career seeking out extant pockets of, and resources for cultivating, “organic negativity” — his term for social practices and political formations that genuinely stood outside the logic of the system. Some of these he found on the far-Right, in the regionalism of the Italian Lega Nord, the anti-liberal political theory of Carl Schmitt, the paleoconservatism of Paul Gottfried and Samuel Francis, and the right-wing “identitarianism” of Alain de Benoist. Such explorations, or flirtations, were justifiable because, in Piccone’s view, nearly all of what passed for radicalism in the mature societies of the West was pseudo-radicalism that ultimately served capitalist interests.
Although Piccone could be more than a bit conspiratorial, it is not hard to see how his “artificial negativity” thesis could be applied to a great deal of the officially sanctioned cultural radicalism of today, which may help to explain why ideas similar to his are beginning to resurface. One can also point to the experience of leftists during the Trump years who found themselves corralled into an anti-Trump popular front that had them allying with not only centrist Democrats but also Never-Trump Republicans, including many of the architects of the Iraq War.
Bordiga had famously argued against this sort of broad-based “anti-fascism”, which he warned would “breathe life into that great poisonous monster, a great bloc comprising every form of capitalist exploitation, along with all of its beneficiaries”, and this is indeed what happened — socialists such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, initially popular for their opposition to the “corporate” establishment of the Democrats, ultimately fell in line behind the party’s leadership and urged their followers to do the same.
The Trump years also revealed something about the nature of power in the United States that, once seen, is difficult to unsee. For all the warnings that Trump would turn out to be Hitler, he in practice turned out to be more like Berlusconi — a vulgar entertainer with a sordid personal life who in most respects ended up governing like a normal politician.
What happened on the other side of the aisle was more subtle but also, in the long run, more sinister. We saw the national media collaborating with shadowy intelligence agents and researchers to launder a conspiracy theory about Russian collusion and, later, employ the same playbook to block Trump’s planned withdrawal from Afghanistan. We saw constant media-generated and wealthy NGO-funded campaigns against racism and sexism welded to the electoral priorities of the Democrats. We saw “Critical Race Theory”, a crude ideological rationalisation of the Democrats’ coalitional logic, elevated to the level of quasi-official religion. We saw Twitter suspending The New York Post for publishing embarrassing information about Joe Biden’s son in the run-up to the election and payments processors such as PayPal partnering with progressive NGOs to monitor their customers and report “extremists” to law enforcement.
In short, we saw the consolidation of a near-unified ruling class bloc explicitly aligned with the Democratic Party against the potential disruption of Trump. This development has already created a host of strange new political alliances. If it holds, we should not be surprised if more than a few anti-capitalist radicals begin to reassess who their real enemies are.
Sending NATO troops to Ukraine would not be particularly helpful. Russia has complete local dominance in its region (land, sea and air) and would defeat NATO in such battles. But if the West wanted to do more than just send arms and other supplies to the Ukrainian resistance it could certainly cause serious military problems for Putin instead of just making speeches. For example Turkey could and should close the Bosphorous to bottle up the Russian fleet (as could and should have been done over Syria). NATO naval forces would be completely dominant everywhere else and could cut off most of Russia’s revenue from trade. It would be up to Russia whether it wished to escalate from a losing position or would prefer to withdraw quickly. A lot of lives could be saved if the West was not so completely gutless…
If NATO was as gutless as feared, Turkey would not have done it despite the fact that it really is not optional.
But Turkey HAS done it!!! That makes a BIG difference. It suggests that NATO will fight as well as make speeches.
In time of war, Article 19 of the Montreaux convention clearly prohibits warships of belligerent powers from passing through the straits in Turkish territory except to return to their bases (unless permitted by Turkey on the basis that they are assisting a victim of aggression or fulfilling international obligations). This isn’t optional. Russia is a belligerent. Russia’s Black Sea fleet can only return to Sevastapol (eg from Syria if they were based in Sevastapol rather than Vladivostok or Syria).
Russia’s war on the Syrian people did not make it technically a “belligerent” under that treaty since it was not at war with Syria but allied with the Syrian government iagainst the people, just as the US and Australia were not “belligerents” when the US occupied southern Vietnam and attacked the north in alliance with a puppet “Republic of South Vietnam”.
Turkey could, and should, have exercised its options under Articles 20 and 21 to “consider herself to be threatened with imminent danger of war” and prohibit passages of Russian warships supporting the Syrian regime despite Russia not technically being a “belligerent”.
But there in nothing optional about the prohibition under Article 19. Turkey would be actively complicit with Russia if it pretended Russia was not a belligerent in its current war. Turkey is far from being actively complicit this time, and so is NATO. The Syrian people were betrayed. The Ukrainians may not be.
Interestingly Russia’s entire Mediteranean naval presence of 16 ships are currently in Syrian waters headed directly for the Russian base at Tartarus:
Preventing Russia’s Black Sea fleet from leaving and permitting NATO naval forces to enter is unlikely to directly affect the war on Ukraine since NATO is unlikely to actually fight Russian naval forces on their home ground.
But if the West is serious about cutting off Russian trade, it has overwhelming naval superiority everywhere else in the world. A naval blockade would be an act of war but it would be up to Russia whether it wished to escalate from a losing position or accept having its ships searched for prohibited contraband by countries supporting the Ukrainian resistance by sanctions. Without the Black Sea fleet Russia really has no option but to submit to Russian ships being prevented from carrying Russian trade. China might well carry Russian trade by land and sea. But could not get Russian goods through customs in most of the developed world.
Some quick notes follow on other measures recently requested by Ukraine.
2. Requests for munitions are being met. The critical thing will be keeping supplies flowing under Russian occupation.
Ukrainia’s borders with the EU and NATO are nearly 1400km.
An occupation force of 140,000 can be thought of as 1 every 10m (if they did not have anything else to do).
3. A no fly zone has been requested but not yet offered. Over important parts of the border this could be critical for maintaining the flow of supplies as well as for protecting Ukrainian cities etc. It would take some time to establish since the NATO force posture is not prepared for it. A No Fly Zone does actually mean acts of war to shoot down Russian aircraft and missiles. The Stinger missiles already being supplied for use against assault helicopters etc would be operated by Ukrainian defence forces and would not be an act of war by the suppliers. But more effective air defence operated by NATO from NATO territory would be legitimate targets for Russian counter attack and would need to be heavily defended.
I don’t know how long it would take but it should start right now. NATO does at least have a force posture for rapid deployment to the Lithuania-Poland border area known as the Suwalki gap (named after the nearby town of Suwałki), because it represents a tough-to-defend flat narrow piece of land, a gap, that is between Belarus and Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave and that connects the NATO-member Baltic States to Poland and the rest of NATO.
A no fly zone there would also put pressure on Kaliningrad and Belorussia. It should be extended as rapidly as possible southward to fully cover the border regions close to Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Rumania, then North to Latvia (putting further pressure on Belarus). Later consideration could be given to putting pressure directly on Russia by extending to Estonia and offering to Moldova.
As soon as the air defence deployments can be adequately protected from Russian counter attack they should start shooting down Russian aircraft and missiles. That may not be very soon so lots of munitions should be got across the border as fast as possible to be hidden away for long term use.
4. Removal of Russian veto. That has also been requested despite there being no obvious way it could be done since Russia would veto it.
But it can be done by UN General Assembly deciding to form a replacement United Nations that existing members not currently engaged in wars of aggression prohibited by the UN Charter are invited to join. Why not? The UN needs replacement anyway. Would require agreement on other changes to the Security Council of the replacement organization. That is long overdue and may take more time but the process could be started now and would immediately intensify the isolation of Russia long before it was completed. Even if China refused to join it would be sufficient if India joined together with most countries. The old UN would simply wither away along with the Tsarist regime in Russia.
4. The battle for is for democracy, not just in Ukraine. Victory requires democracy in Belorussia and Russia too:
Ukraine’s guerilla war could topple the Tsar of All the Russias.
Ukrainians will fight
And they have interesting competent leadership from a comedian who could also lead elsewhere
Putin’s declaration of war does not mention Belarus. But it does mention Belgrade, Iraq, Libya and Syria.
Putin laments the existential threat to the Russian regime from the West, suggesting that Russia must invade Ukraine to avoid sharing the misfortunes of the fascist regimes in Belgrade, Iraq, Libya and Syria.
Putin pretends Russia faces a military threat from NATO, and does not mention the EU. But the real threat from “the West” to Russia’s backward Tsarist autocracy is very clear. The threat is that the slavs would prefer to flourish in the EU rather than the life of slaves to Tsarist autocrats.
It is too late to to drag the Ukrainians back to slavery. But it is not yet to too late to delay Belarus going the same way. A joint operation with Belarus to occupy parts of Ukraine could help postpone the next regime collapse in Russia. Maintaining endless conflict and disruption in Ukraine makes Ukraine’s path away from rule by corrupt oligarchs more difficult and slower. It also provides a basis for much harsher repression to keep the people down in both Russia and Belarus. Putin’s war can make Ukraine a less successful and attractive contrast to Russia’s stagnation and the “Western” enemy can be blamed for that stagnation continuing to get worse.
My guess is that’s what the war is about. If so, I would assume Putin would want to occupy areas with as few Ukrainians engaged in guerilla resistance as possible, while posing a constant threat to the rest. Occupying a narrow coastal strip from the Donbas to Transnistra would block Ukrainian access to the sea. That strip includes Odessa, Ukraine’s third largest city. But that is a less difficult proposition than long term occupation of the whole country. It is also easier to exit from if things go badly.
That’s just a guess. It is consistent with a blitzkrieg aimed at surrounding and then seizing Kiev, perhaps with special forces pretending to represent an internal coup from the Ukrainian army to decapitate the current government. But it does not require a capability to maintain a long term occupation with a puppet regime in Kiev. It could succeed if the West actively blocked Ukraine from getting adequate supplies of weapons and other support. But I don’t think the Western acquiescence over Ukraine is anywhere near the level of the current Western betrayal of Syria or the 1930s Western betrayal of Spain. Ukraine won’t run out of ammunition to keep fighting.
The omission of Belarus from Putin’s speech is curious. With only one ally directly participating, surely it would be worth mentioning?
“In the near future we will do what we and Russia need,” Sputnik Belarus quoted Lukashenko as saying. He also stressed that, if necessary, Belarusian troops would be involved in Russia’s military operation in Ukraine. “We will not make excuses about whether we participate or not participate in this conflict. Our troops are not there. But if it is necessary, if it is necessary for Belarus and Russia, they will,” the President of Belarus said.
The troops directly threatening Kiev crossed the northern border of Ukraine from Belarus at its weakest spot, the radioactive and therefore undefended Chernobyl exclusion zone. But most of them remain positioned in Belarus.
Lukashenko’s boasting that he persuaded Putin to keep Russian troops in Belarus for protection against the West has nothing to do with fears of NATO invasion from Poland, Lithuania or Latvia. It reminds the people already rising up against the local fascists that removing them would require more than breaking the local armed forces.
That reminder is realistic. When it falls the Belarus regime will fall more heavily as despised collaborators. But it will take longer to overthrow them than if they were not backed by a Tsarist garrison.
Putin’s speech is also a direct threat to the Russian people. Claims that they face genocide and nuclear attack from Ukrainian Nazis are not intended to convince anybody. Western media keeps repeating how ludicrous such claims are. But there seems to be some assumption that they would look less ludicrous to Russians. I haven’t seen any discussion of the implications of them looking ludicrous to Russians too.
To me these claims are similar to the sort of claims made by the Assad regime when it unleashed its thugs to suppress the Syrian people with nerve gas, Russian support and Western acquiescence. The point is that if you resist you will be crushed, not argued with. There is some support for invading Ukraine among the more stupid and reactionary sections of the Russian people. But not much, even among Putin’s fellow oligarchs. Putin has not even attempted to mobilize popular support and does not have reserves available to mobilize for a long occupation. If the present level of repression was maintained in Russia an anti-war movement would quickly gain majority support and become a serious threat to the regime. The message is that opposition will be far more ruthlessly crushed than previously. The regime knows it will continue to become less and less popular and is declaring that it will continue to rule by naked fascist force, as in China.
I haven’t studied what’s actually happening in Ukraine (or its neighbours) and am relying on quick impressions gained from reading the Australian (ie US) mass media plus the “other side” as linked above. A more nuanced version of the other side is provided from a Russian foreign policy think tank in an interview:
“How are Putin’s actions going down in Russia itself? What do Russians think about this?
It’s not a full-scale invasion as yet. This is something like the Syrian campaign. And till now we see only air strikes, targeted air strikes – something like surgical strikes in the Indian sense. Till now, Putin does not need the people’s support.
In the result of these strikes, there is no news about Ukrainian and Russian casualties. The limits of this operation will be known only by and by, and the level of the resistance from the Ukrainian forces. When you carry out air strikes, you don’t need any great public support – the US didn’t need public support in their campaign against Iraq, for example. Modi did not need public support, did not take Parliament’s support for surgical strikes. So until the [time the] scale is limited, the problem of public support is not an issue, not a question for Putin.
Where do you see it all heading? Will it stop at these strikes, do you see this escalating?
Because of the US and European sanctions against Russia since last year, they were very soft. The Russian economy did not face any problems because of these actions. If it is full-scale sanctions, problems with Swift, problems over our banks, it will be one thing. If these are softer sanctions, meant to find a resolution to the problem, it’s absolutely different. Now, the Russian economy is quite strong, we have very low national debt, we have our own system, we don’t have any great loans from the western market. What will happen further, I can’t say now.
But I don’t think he wants to incorporate Ukraine in Russia because for us, in fact, it needs a political solution. The Ukrainian issue has to be decided by compromise, not by incorporation.”
My impression is that interview is worth studying carefully as an indication of how the Russian foreign policy establishment views the war. I don’t think it’s just covering up an intention to maintain a long term occupation of Ukraine. Rather it reflects a realistic assessment that there is no support for a long term occupation and wishful thinking that the West will somehow actively rescue Putin by arranging a “compromise”.
My take above is that it is a war on the slav peoples rather than just a war on Ukraine.
I haven’t seen that suggested elsewhere so I am throwing it out there.
I may be quite wrong but it makes more sense to me than the ludicrous fantasies about it being some sort of contest between the West led by the USA (with Joe Biden as “leader of the free world”!) and Russia.
Even Greg Sheriden can see the obvious:
“So far, in response to his aggression against Ukraine, the West has hit Vladimir Putin with a swarm of denunciations and a sanctions response that resembles being beaten with a wet lettuce. This bodes very ill for Ukraine.”
The West has made it utterly clear that it won’t fight for Ukraine and won’t do much to help Ukraine fight. So Putin’s fight isn’t with the West. Certainly his fight is with the Ukraine, but I am saying it is also, and even more importantly a declaration of war by the Tsar of all the Russias against the peoples of all the Russias.
On February 18 Sheridan noticed that:
“… the number of Russian soldiers on Ukraine’s borders continues to increase and is now somewhere between 130,000 and 150,000.That is enough to invade Ukraine, given the superiority of Russian equipment, aircraft and firepower. It’s probably not enough to occupy a nation of 44 million people indefinitely.”
But despite that rare flash of insight, Sheridan by 23 February is totally pessimistic and defeatist:
“Here we come upon another intensely strange and paradoxical moral dilemma. The future of Europe may turn on how hard the Ukrainians are willing to fight for their freedom and independence. Yet if Moscow goes for a full-scale invasion, the superiority in quality and quantity of Russian arms must mean eventual defeat for the Ukrainians.
So should they fight or should they just surrender, because the result will be the same in the end anyway?”
Evidently Sheridan has not learned much from having been on the losing side in Vietnam.
Given the superiority of American equipment, aircraft and firepower it wasn’t enough to occupy the small nation of Vietnam indefinitely. That “superiority” just meant the American aggressors did more damage than the French before them. Of course the Vietnamese did not fight when and where the Americans wanted them to. They retreated and hid and fought when it suited them. The American “superiority” did not mean “eventual defeat” for the Vietnamese. Help from the rest of the world was important, especially from the American people and especially from anti-war US soldiers who killed their officers and broke the US army. The key point was that an expeditionary army of half a million was not enough to occupy another nation “indefinitely”.
Sending NATO troops to Ukraine would not be particularly helpful. Russia has complete local dominance in its region (land, sea and air) and would defeat NATO in such battles. But if the West wanted to do more than just send arms and other supplies to the Ukrainian resistance it could certainly cause serious military problems for Putin instead of just making speeches. For example Turkey could and should close the Bosphorous to bottle up the Russian fleet (as could and should have been done over Syria). NATO naval forces would be completely dominant everywhere else and could cut off most of Russia’s revenue from trade. It would be up to Russia whether it wished to escalate from a losing position or would prefer to withdraw quickly. A lot of lives could be saved if the West was not so completely gutless. But the peoples of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine will still win in the end. The long term result will be regime change in Russia again.
The late John Herouvim wrote a Master of Arts thesis at La Trobe University in 1983, drawing on wide and meticulous research and interviews with Communist Party of Australia (ML) members and former members. The former members included veterans of the working class struggle such as Clarrie O’Shea, Bill Wilson and Marj Broadbent. Most of the interviewees were still members and requested anonymity but they wanted to speak because of their growing disillusionment with that party.
I only recently came upon a copy of the completed thesis. It hasn’t previously been scanned, to the best of my knowledge.
I am yet to read it properly but recall having a few differences with John, such as his use of the term ‘ultra left’ too loosely. At the time he was researching it, there were a few social-fascist types who tried to stop his progress. John purchased a large steel safe, like a fridge, in which he kept his notes and drafts. He told me once that the safe would even survive a bomb blast. Thank heavens, it was never put to that test.
Ted Hill, the party chairman, wasn’t happy about John’s research and declined to cooperate with him but I remember John telling me that Hill offered him unrestricted access to the archives of a small trade union should he drop the project and focus on a history of that union instead. Presumably, the party had strong influence in that union, whose name I forget.
The thesis is now an historical document about a party and period that, in my view today, represented the decline of the left. I didn’t articulate my frustrations in that way at the time but quit organisationally in late 1980 or early 1981 and had no problems with being interviewed by John for his thesis. I was in the esteemed company of Clarrie O’Shea, after all.
Nearly four decades on, I have scanned the thesis and share it here (in four parts).
In 1968, Paul Erlich’s book, ‘The Population Bomb’, revived Mathusian dystopianism and, surprisingly, was embraced by some people who regarded thermselves as on the Left. Yet in emphasizing population growth and limited resources as the source of problems, the neo-Malthusians overlooked the capitalist mode of production and the structures of class power.
In the C19th, in blaming ‘too many people’ as the source of poverty, Malthus was indeed committing “a libel on the human race” and offering “apologia for the poverty of the working classes”.
The Canberra Times recently published my article below. It had been gestating for a long time and the movie ‘Soylent Green‘ prompted me to write something, given that the dystopian sci-fi film is set in our year: 2022. The movie came out nearly 50 years ago.
My article in The Canberra Times took up a full page, so I definitely can’t complain about the generous word length. However, had I had more words, I would have included at least three more references
First, a personal memory: In the mid-1990s, I was at a party at a friend’s place overlooking the Georges River in Sylvania Heights, Sydney, and the eminent palaeontologist and climate alarmist, Tim Flannery, was among the guests. We had known each other, briefly, at La Trobe University around 1973 or 1974, and struck up a conversation. Tim was very much concerned about population growth, believing that Australia was already over-populated. He told me that the optimum population for Australia was seven million people. I pointed out that that figure approximated the population in 1947 and asked whether he really wanted an Australia of the 1947 type. He seemed not to have thought of it like that, in terms of society, before.
I would also have liked to add more examples of very popular dystopian sci-fi films that have helped create a disempowering doom-and-gloom ethos and that were proven completely wrong in how they saw the future. A powerful example is the original ‘Mad Max‘. The filmmakers in 1979 were so freaked out by the oil crisis of 1973 that they set Mad Max in the ‘wasteland’ of 1985!
Science fiction stories had a big impact on my early political development. I liked the ones that dealt with ‘the impossible’ that was nonetheless potentially possible. Unlike fantasy, which never interested me with its dragons and other mythical creatures and impossible scenarios, sci-fi had a basis in science and innovation. Stories and films about space travel, planetary exploration and colonisation of other planets thrilled me; they seemed beyond possibility back then but I loved to fantasize about a future in which they would be part of life. Later, I was influenced by ideas about how society itself could be reshaped into something much better and, through Marxism, came to a rudimentary understand about the forces that were retarding such progress and those that were pushing things forward.
It’s very rare to find progressive sci-fi in mainstream cinema today. An exception in the mainstream was the movie ‘The Martian‘ which came out in 2015. I really enjoyed the way it showed how humans can overcome obstacles imposed by Nature, in this case the apparently uninhabitable planet Mars. Human ingenuity, wit, courage, innovation and spirit combine to ‘conquer’ Nature. The stranded astronaut survives to tell the tale.
Anyway, here is my article…
‘SOYLENT GREEN’ IS STILL BAD FOR YOU – 50 YEARS ON
It is a brave science fiction film that offers a precise year in its speculations. This is particularly so in the dystopian genre where eco-catastrophe is a common theme.
The makers of the iconic ‘Soylent Green’, which was released nearly 50 years ago, offered us a glimpse to our own year, 2022. It was the first film to mention the Greenhouse Effect, though there is no suggestion that the inhumanly overcrowded, sweltering, society depicted is the result of CO2 emissions. Rather, all the problems in the dystopia of 2022 are caused by ‘overpopulation’.
The film was made in 1973 when the world’s population was 4 billion. Today, it is 7.7 billion. The filmmakers’ expected it to be much larger than that. Some countries, like China and India, with huge populations are lifting themselves from poverty. The United Nations Human Development Index, which has measured health, education, income, gender equality, and poverty since 1990, indicates that population growth and progress are not mutually exclusive.
Soylent Green is a type of biscuit on which the malnourished population portrayed in 2022 has come to rely. It was formerly made from plankton but then the oceans acidified. Soylent, the monopoly manufacturer, finds a new source, one that is not revealed until the film’s shocking end.
The action takes place in New York City, which in the film has a population of 40 million and is terribly overcrowded and polluted. (Reality check: New York City’s population today is 8.8 million). There is no sunshine, just grim darkness and power outages. The streets have people dying in gutters, car wrecks everywhere, and makeshift shanties in laneways. Tenements are dilapidated and their stairwells crowded with women and children who have nowhere else to sleep. The film’s main character, Detective Thorn, played by Charlton Heston, clammers over them to reach his small room.
In this imagined 2022, Manhattan has two million out of work. Corruption and crime are out of control. (Reality: crime has reduced greatly in New York City since the 1970s). In Thorn’s precinct, there are 137 murders a day. (Reality: there were 450 murders in all of New York City last year).
In the Soylent Corporation’s New York, everyone swelters as the days reach 32 degrees all year round. (Reality: Winters remain very, very, cold). The masses line up at rusty central water pumps for their ration of water which has become a scarce resource. (Reality: New York City’s seven reservoirs are at 88% capacity).
Fresh food is a luxury for the great mass of people who are malnourished. But not so the rich. Thorn, who is probably in his late 30s, has to be taught how to eat an apple by his best friend, Sol, the elderly man of wisdom who remembers how things used to be in ‘the good old days’ before ‘our scientific magicians poisoned the water’. (Reality: New York City water is only poisonous if you regard fluoride as a poison). Sol is played admirably by Edward G. Robinson in his last cinematic role.
An exasperated Sol declares that ‘Everything’s burning up! No-one cares!’, but that is hardly true when it comes to climate change. Not only do governments around the world take action to reduce CO2 emissions, admittedly some more than others, but some of the biggest multinational corporations are on side as well.
At its core, Soylent Green is a reactionary film because it adopts the Malthusian view that ‘too many people’ cause the problems. The misanthropy is expressed through Sol when he says: ‘People were always rotten but the world was beautiful’. Beautiful – but for the people?! None of the world’s problems, such as lack of democracy and development, corrupt governments, oppression of women, inequality, nationalism, shifts in climate patterns and the rule of capital, would be solved by reducing population numbers.
Charlton Heston, a prominent right-winger in the US, commissioned the script for the film. The great divide between rich and poor is revealed when Thorn investigates the murder of a director of the Soylent Corp and enters the victim’s spacious apartment in the ruling class’ exclusive Chelsea Towers. The capitalists live in utter luxury with fresh food, water, air-conditioning and the latest mod-cons, including video games. But the film goes nowhere with this class divide; instead, the problem is overpopulation. Echoing the Rev Thomas Malthus’ ‘libel against humanity’, as Marx described it 157 years ago, it is the poor, tired, huddled masses who are responsible for their own suffering. A very convenient belief system.
There is one scene in which the people riot but that is short-lived and they are easily defeated, their bodies scooped up from the streets in large front-end loaders and taken off to… well, that would be a spoiler.
The film’s portrayal of women in the imagined 2022 is laughable. They are either part of the sweaty anonymous mass or beautiful ‘furniture girls’, who are assigned to each new tenant in the apartments of the rich. They do what they are told. It’s as though the Women’s Liberation movement never happened.
The film ends with poor old Sol going to a euthanasia clinic. Given his attitude to Humanity, who can blame him? It’s legal in 2022 and performed in clean comfortable circumstances. Sol watches beautiful scenes of Nature on a large screen – blooming flowers, blue skies, fluffy white clouds, streaming rivers, forests, ocean waves crashing gently on a beach – while his favourite classical music is played in the background.
He is nearly eighty, which approximates the life expectancy in New York today. But in 1973, when the film was released, life expectancy was seventy-one.
After Sol dies, Thorn secretly follows the truck carrying the corpse to an unknown destination. Dozens of bodies end up in a large warehouse and are then processed into… you’ve guessed it! – Soylent Green. Thorn screams out: ‘It’s made out of people!’ Not a bad metaphor for capitalism, actually, as a system that objectifies our labour potential and exploits and consumes the best hours of our lives.
As the end credits roll, we again see the scenes of beautiful Nature. My mind turns to recent road trips with my wife along the east coast of Australia and the glorious scenery.
Soylent Green inspired hundreds of similar sci fi films and influenced countless numbers of people with its unreal dystopian vision. Such films are a reflection of a social system that accurately sees no future for itself.
Soylent Green, and the ideology it represents, really are bad for us – toxic, in fact.
(The following article by Paul Komesaroff appeared in The Age on 15 January. I’m running it here without permission in order to promote further discussion. Please read it at the original AGE site and make comments there too)
January 15, 2022
Now that the disaster is upon us we can start to analyse how it happened.
I am a frontline health worker, lying listlessly in bed battling an infection with the Omicron variant. My illness has provided me with the opportunity to reflect on our current predicament and what lessons can be learnt from it.
Healthcare workers have been pushed to the limit by the crisis.
We do need to be clear, however: this is a true disaster. Unprecedented numbers of people have been admitted to our hospitals, which are now full. Deaths are mounting rapidly. Ambulances sit in line for hours waiting to discharge their sick patients to overrun emergency departments. Patients with serious non-COVID illnesses, like heart attacks and cancers, struggle to find doctors to treat them.
In the health services up to 10 per cent of workers are away sick, and many, unable to cope with the stress, have given up and resigned. Food and other essential services are failing. The frantic determination to avoid lockdowns has produced a de facto lockdown, more intense than the official ones because of its unplanned, chaotic nature and the absence of safety nets.
Admittedly, not all the news is bad. Even if the vaccines are imperfect at preventing infections and hospitalisations, they do greatly reduce the risk of death – and they may well have saved my life. Healthcare staff – doctors and nurses, young and old – are working tirelessly, often to the point of exhaustion, in heroic efforts to keep the system going.
But it is still a disaster. How did we get here? For nearly two years we had struggled to work together and protect each other. In Victoria, respected political and public health leadership provided reliable information and a determined and clearly argued plan. There were lapses – like hotel quarantine – that were subjected to ruthless public scrutiny, but overcoming the challenges and setbacks heightened the sense of solidarity and mutual caring.
But then it all unravelled. It seemed quick but in reality the forces had been in play all along. An unrelenting campaign to undermine the collective purpose, to oppose all restrictions, had worn away at confidence in public health measures. Campaigns of disinformation and conspiracy theories stimulated the rise of fringe Trump-like groups. The incessant talk about how injunctions to support the vulnerable were in reality a device to undermine prized individual “freedoms” hit home.
A concerted effort by the federal government, supported by the NSW government, attacked the few strategies that had been shown to work. Ballooning numbers in NSW quickly led to the spread of infections across the country.
Then, exactly as Omicron emerged, as health workers looked on with incredulity and horror, even the most minimal remaining restrictions were lifted.
It was widely acknowledged that this decision would produce disastrous consequences and would need quickly to be reversed. And it was true: the disaster happened and the restrictions were reversed. But the damage had been done and the effects were irreversible.
The policy that produced this decision was not the result of simple incompetence. It embodied a fully coherent, and carefully articulated, ethical world-view, on which we as a society now need to make a decision.
The “let it rip” strategy is a potent statement that health and human life should be held to be of little value; that individual “freedom” is directly opposed to collective action and mutual care; and that our society is richer and better if we and our governments repudiate responsibility to weaker members, to those fleeing persecution, and to future generations.
Through the clouds of my delirium I fancy that this understanding of society as a war of all against all had long been discredited. I imagine that most of us have become aware that freedom is enhanced when the structures of mutual support and opportunity remain intact. I muse that there is abundant evidence that the safety of our children and grandchildren can only be assured if we work collectively and co-operatively to protect and care for each other and for our planet.
The reality is that we are in the middle of a war – not just against the “invisible enemy” of the virus but also a new culture war, or more precisely, an ethics war. What is at stake is the vision we wish to have for our society: is it that of a collection of individuals opposed to each other, where security is limited to the powerful and the privileged?
Or is it of a world of shared values, where collective resources can be applied to those in most need, where each of us is prepared from time to time to defer our own comfort to assist and care for our fellow citizens?
In my fevered state, waiting for my clearance from infection control to return to the fray, I try to remind myself of the heroism of the young doctors, nurses and other essential workers. But I am not confident about the outcome.
Professor Paul Komesaroff is a Melbourne physician, ethicist and writer.
William Hinton (1919-2004) was an American Marxist who lived and worked in China before and after the revolution of 1949. In 1966, he wrote up his experiences and observations of daily life, class struggle, strategic planning and social transformation in Long Bow village. The book, ‘Fanshen‘, remains a classic. (‘Fanshen’ broadly means overturning something).
As a Marxist and ‘Maoist’, Hinton naturally rejected the ascendancy of the capitalist-roaders, such as Deng Xiaoping, and pulled no punches in his 1983 book, ‘Shenfan’ (meaning the opposite of Fanshen).
The account of what happened at Tiananmen Square in Hinton’s book is here.
I’m posting this because, incredibly, there are still people around who claim to be leftists but regard the rebellion as a foreign plot, its suppression as justified, and the massacre as fake news.