Hegel, Engels, and the pseudo-left… “All that is real is rational, and all that is rational is real”

Fundamental to a genuine left is this concept:

“Just as knowledge is unable to reach a complete conclusion in a perfect, ideal condition of humanity, so is history unable to do so; a perfect society, a perfect “state”, are things which can only exist in imagination. On the contrary, all successive historical systems are only transitory stages in the endless course of development of human society from the lower to the higher. Each stage is necessary, and therefore justified for the time and conditions to which it owes its origin. But in the face of new, higher conditions which gradually develop in its own womb, it loses vitality and justification. It must give way to a higher stage which will also in its turn decay and perish.”

(Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, 1886)

The following is a discussion from the Lastsuperpower site in 2003 about the philosophical basis of pseudo-leftism. The two contributors are ‘Albert’ and ‘Keza’. It stands up very well fourteen years on, and had a big impact on me at the time. –
c21styork

 

Revolutionaries are historical optimists who stress the inevitability of progress. Pseudo-Leftists are reactionaries who merely denounce how bad things are and actively reinforce the idea that they cannot be changed. But when revolutionaries reject the irrational obscurantism and moralistic posturing of pseudo-Leftists and line up together with the ruling class against them, by asserting that “all that is real is rational”, they are also implicitly saying “all that exists deserves to perish”

Author: albert

Date : Jun 15, 2003 4:48 am

“All that is real is rational; and all that is rational is real”

Hegel’s remark “All that is real is rational; and all that is rational is real.” is central to understanding the philosophical outlook of communism.

It’s worth carefully studying Engel’s explanation of this seemingly paradoxical position, as it sheds a lot of light on some aspects of the problems with pseudo-Leftists and other reactionaries conservatives.

Fundamental to the genuine left is this concept:

“Just as knowledge is unable to reach a complete conclusion in a perfect, ideal condition of humanity, so is history unable to do so; a perfect society, a perfect “state”, are things which can only exist in imagination. On the contrary, all successive historical systems are only transitory stages in the endless course of development of human society from the lower to the higher. Each stage is necessary, and therefore justified for the time and conditions to which it owes its origin. But in the face of new, higher conditions which gradually develop in its own womb, it loses vitality and justification. It must give way to a higher stage which will also in its turn decay and perish.”

One aspect of that is the idea that “each stage is necessary, and therefore justified for the time and conditions to which it owes its origin”. Pseudo-Leftists assert the opposite. They are able to present themselves as more “militantly opposed” to the status quo than revolutionaries because they refuse to “understand” current reality as “necessary” and “therefore justified for the time and conditions to which it owes its origin”. Instead they simply denounce it from an ahistorical perspective as contrary to some absolute morality.

Anyone critical of the status quo is bound to highlight its negative features and denounce them as intolerable. But by denying that those negative features had their own rational basis the pseudo-Left obscures the rational necessity for inevitable change to the status quo arising from new circumstances that obsolete the justification for the old reality and necessitate a new reality.

Revolutionaries are historical optimists who stress the inevitability of progress. Pseudo-Leftists are reactionaries who merely denounce how bad things are and actively reinforce the idea that they cannot be changed. But when revolutionaries reject the irrational obscurantism and moralistic posturing of pseudo-Leftists and line up together with the ruling class against them, by asserting that “all that is real is rational”, they are also implicitly saying “all that exists deserves to perish” as explained by Engels:

“And so, in the course of development, all that was previously real becomes unreal, loses it necessity, its right of existence, its rationality. And in the place of moribund reality comes a new, viable reality — peacefully if the old has enough intelligence to go to its death without a struggle; forcibly if it resists this necessity. Thus the Hegelian proposition turns into its opposite through Hegelian dialectics itself: All that is real in the sphere of human history, becomes irrational in the process of time, is therefore irrational by its very destination, is tainted beforehand with irrationality, and everything which is rational in the minds of men is destined to become real, however much it may contradict existing apparent reality. In accordance with all the rules of the Hegelian method of thought, the proposition of the rationality of everything which is real resolves itself into the other proposition: All that exists deserves to perish.”

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Hegel and the pseudo-left

Author: keza

Date : Jun 21, 2003 3:00 am

After reading Albert’s Hegel message I got a bit interested in Hegel and tried to find out what he was on about. The following message results from that. It’s not really finished but I’ve had enough of it for now…

In his Australian article ‘Not in Your Name Indeed’, Barry York described the politics of the pseudo-Left as a “mish-mash” , a “jumble of prejudices”, “more akin to a sub-culture than a political movement”.

I think these words captured something very important about the pseudo-left – in particular its atheoretical and ahistorical nature. Pseudo-left ideology lends itself well to bulleted lists of things to oppose and things to support. At the same time, events in the world are classified according to surface appearance rather than in terms of what underlies them. The pseudo-left may talk of the “underlying reasons” for something like the war in Iraq but this talk is always of “hidden agendas”, “secret motives” and is quite different from studying such events in light of the underlying flow of history.

Hegel’s statement: “All that is real is rational; and all that is rational is real” asserts that history makes sense: “the phantom of a world whose events are an incoherent concourse of fortuitous circumstances, utterly vanishes”.

In contrast, pseudo-left ideology attributes only the most superficial rationality to what happens in the world.

Indeed it seems to me that the pseudo-left has an essentially folk-loric version of how the world works. There is evil and there is good. (Or there is God and there is Satan). Being “good” means being pure and true and perfect and this comes down to opposing the dark forces of evil. It’s an abstract, ideal position which is capable of generating protests but has no serious orientation toward actually changing the world. The feel-good slogan “Not in My Name” captures its nature rather well.

The Hegelian conception of history exerted an enormous influence on both Marx and Engels. Although Hegel was an idealist, his view of history was one in which humans were seen as becoming progressively more capable of controlling their own destiny. He saw history as always progressing in the direction of greater freedom – driven by the dialectical opposition between what is actual and what is potential.

Hegel was an idealist because of his adherence to the idea of the supremacy of “Spirit” (akin to mind) over matter (which he saw as inert – “its essence outside itself’.:

“Spirit knows itself. It involves an appreciation of its own nature, as also an energy enabling it to realise itself; to make itself actually that which it is potentially. According to this abstract definition it may be said of Universal History, that it is the exhibition of Spirit in the process of working out the knowledge of that which it is potentially. And as the germ bears in itself the whole nature of the tree, and the taste and form of its fruits, so do the first traces of Spirit virtually contain the whole of that History.”

and

“The life of a people ripens a certain fruit; its activity aims at the complete manifestation of the principle which it embodies. But this fruit does not fall back into the bosom of the people that produced and matured it; on the contrary, it becomes a poison-draught to it. That poison-draught it cannot let alone, for it has an insatiable thirst for it: the taste of the draught is its annihilation., though at the same time the rise of a new principle.”

Engels pointed out that “according to Hegel certainly not everything that exists is also real, without further qualification. For Hegel the attribute of reality belongs only to that which at the same time is necessary: “In the course of its development reality proves to be necessity.” “.

This qualification is important, otherwise Hegel’s statement could be taken as no more than the assertion that the status quo (being “real”) is always rational and therefore justified. Such an interpretation would contradict his view of history as a process of progressive change in which what is actual loses its necessity and gives way to its own potential: “It certainly makes war upon itself — consumes its own existence; but in this very destruction it works up with existence into a new form, and each successive phase becomes in its turn a material, working on which it exalts itself to a new grade.”

Getting back to the pseudo-left …it seems to me that their political outlook is characterized by a denial/ignorance of both necessity and rationality (and therefore of reality). Opposition to US imperialism turns out to be an unchallengeable, immutable, stand-alone principle of some sort. The idea that Bush et al could intend to democratize the Middle East – that their old policy is no longer rational (ie that in the current world situation it has lost its necessity) is seen as strange and nonsensical. How could it be possible for US imperialism to do such a thing?

It’s easy to appear as very revolutionary and militant if your stance does not include any appreciation of current reality and necessity. And the opposite is also true – it’s easy to attack those who are being (correctly) radical and militant. Basically you don’t have to feel responsible for anything that happens because such a stance does not involve actually trying to change the world.

In “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific”, Engels said this about Hegel:

“This new German philosophy culminated in the Hegelian system. In this system — and herein is its great merit — for the first time the whole world, natural, historical, intellectual, is represented as a process — i.e., as in constant motion, change, transformation, development; and the attempt is made to trace out the internal connection that makes a continuous whole of all this movement and development. From this point of view, the history of mankind no longer appeared as a wild whirl of senseless deeds of violence, all equally condemnable at the judgment seat of mature philosophic reason and which are best forgotten as quickly as possible, but as the process of evolution of man himself. It was now the task of the intellect to follow the gradual march of this process through all its devious ways, and to trace out the inner law running through all its apparently accidental phenomena.”

Pseudo left ideology does not encourage people to use their intellects to grasp the nature of what is happening in the world . On the contrary it propagates the idea that the truth can be hidden – (and sometimes) that there’s really no such thing as truth, that intuition and “gut feeling” are superior to logic, that the people who rule the world are stupid/irrational enough to “let things get out of control” and so on.

Anyway I’m getting tired of writing this ….

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Comments :

(by albert on 06/20/2003)

Thanks for the excellent article!

I’m getting inspired to read up on Hegel again too (also philosophy generally and have started reading Marx’s Notebooks on Epicurus to shed some light on why he wrote his doctoral thesis on atomic physics 😉

One point I’d stress is that it isn’t just the pseudo-Left which suffers from the various problems described. What distinguishes the pseudo-Left is often merely that it dresses up conventional ruling class ideas in a “militant”, “radical”, “leftist” but essentially a “pseudo” guise.

The basic idea that Engels finds appealing in Hegel is “the whole world, natural, historical, intellectual, is represented as a process — i.e., as in constant motion, change, transformation, development”. That dialectical emphasis on a process of progress and development is especially problematic to a decaying, moribund, parasitic ruling class.

Although some sections of the bourgeoisie still sing “Happy Days Are Here Again” and present themselves as at least complacent, if not progressive or revolutionary, the dominant mood is full of doom and gloom – literally terrified of what the future might bring (with a corresponding emphasis on “terrorists” as only one aspect of that).

As Marx pointed out, in any class society the ideas of the ruling class are of course the ruling ideas. That can easily be said glibly but it stands in direct opposition to such views as Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent”.

The ruling ideas, those that dominate education, culture etc, are thoroughly pessimistic and stress the hopelessness of any struggle for change. That is especially the case for state sponsored education (“post-modern” university departments of doom and gloom) and culture (national broadcasters such as the British BBC and Australian ABC bringing daily sermons that everything is going from bad to worse).

The pseudo-Left has been let off the hook because it has been challenged only by the complacent right, which accepts the pseudos self-image as something “radical”, “militant” etc (by denouncing them on that basis, in support of the status quo).

Instead the pseudo-Left must be exposed as a direct reflection of ruling class ideology delivering exactly the official line – that nothing positive can be done to challenge the ruling class since even though they are obviously hopeless, no better alternative is possible.

That is what strips away the “radical” veneer. For example when faced with the usual diatribes against “consumerism” from greenies, these should just be treated as obviously a proposal to reduce real wages and discussed seriously on that basis. “Ok, so you want people to consume less. That’s easy – simply reduce their incomes. So I guess what you would need would be more unemployment – both to reduce incomes directly and to add to the pressure for reducing wages indirectly. That would explain a lot of green policies. I guess if we used less technology that would pretty well guarantee a sharp reduction in productivity and therefore in incomes and consumption. Hmm, interesting approach. Must be appealing to governments and corporations so they would give you a lot of funding. But aren’t you up against History – isn’t there something unstoppable about people’s desire to live better than before?”

 

 

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Bold thinking, revolutionary democracy and ‘the children of Karl Marx and Coca Cola’

Last month, La Trobe University organised a ‘Bold Thinking’ panel for its 50th anniversary program at the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia.

I was one of the four panellists. The others were Katie Holmes, professor of History at La Trobe, and my two old comrades, Fergus Robinson and Brian Pola. Fergus and Brian and I became known as ‘the La Trobe Three’ after we were gaoled for contempt of the Supreme Court of Victoria in 1972. Amnesty International became interested in our case as we were political prisoners.

La Trobe live-streamed the ‘Bold Thinking’ event, including question time, and it can be seen here. Anyone wanting greater background can check out my book ‘Student Revolt’ (1989) or this essay which appeared in ‘Vestes: Australian Universities Review’ in 1984: VESTES essay – Student dissent LTU 1967-72 (1984)

This morning, I viewed the film of the event for the first time. I thought each of us did well but had a lot more we could have said.

As for me, I was extremely nervous. The last time I had spoken before so many people in a public political forum was 1980 at the Lower Melbourne Town Hall when I was on a panel in support of a boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games.

Prior to the ‘Bold Thinking’ event, I jotted down a few key points. I was only able to make a few of them – after all, there were four of us sharing an hour – and I want to offer a few more thoughts (in no particular order) here.

* * * *

  1. I had wanted to mention at the beginning of the evening that while the notion of ‘the La Trobe Three’ is valid because only three of us were gaoled, there were in fact four of us who were named in the Supreme Court injunctions. The fourth was Rodney Taylor, who was never captured and thus not gaoled.
  1. Also, in late 1971, twenty-three left-wing students were fined by the University’s kangaroo court, or Proctorial Board, and twelve were excluded (expelled for specific periods). The authorities had accurately identified the core of the militant left, with one or two ‘innocents’ thrown in to make it look fairer. The point I had wanted to make was that of those 23 comrades, five are no longer with us. I want them to be remembered, and do so now: Rob Mathews, Ken Rushgrove, John Cummins, Jan Schapper and Maggie Grant.
  1. A factual blooper on my part: I said that we escorted Defence Department recruiters from the campus in 1969 – it was actually 1970. (The first on-campus confrontation with the University’s governing body, the Council, had occurred in 1969, when a protest delegation entered a Council meeting without permission to demand student representation on the governing body).
  1. Fergus made the point that the type of student rebellion of the late 1960s-early 1970s is “almost impossible to replicate today”. I broadly agree but feel that his reasoning – decentralised campus structures and overseas students – requires further consideration. To me, a glaring problem is the absence of communists on campuses. La Trobe – and Monash – had genuine left-wing leadership for at least a couple of years and we instigated and led the issues and set the pace. At La Trobe, this was the situation in 1970 and 1971. Today there are lots of ‘greens’ and post-modernists on campuses so…
  1. Left-wing leadership was made possible through challenges we made to ‘revisionist’ or pseudo-left people with whom we were in open conflict. The CPA (Communist Party of Australia) was not just an opponent but an enemy. They sought to constrain our militancy and politically sought to divert our energies into supporting the Australian Labor Party. (At this time, after the ascendancy of Whitlam in 1967 as ALP Leader, the ALP’s position as the federal Opposition on Vietnam was no longer one of immediate withdrawal of all Australian troops but rather ‘holding operations’ in Vietnam. This pushed many of us further to the extra-parliamentary left, as there was no parliamentary party through which we could secure our goal in Vietnam).

The CPA was not in any sense a revolutionary organisation, and we were revolutionaries with an understanding of state power and the history of class struggle and the nature of the overthrow of one class by another. As with Marx and Engels in the C19th, some of our biggest ideological battles were with ostensible comrades, those seen as leftists or progressives. Within the left/rads/revs (whatever) is its opposite.

I believe there is a need for a similar overthrow of the faux left leadership today. Until that happens, the period of hibernation, or whatever it is, may continue for another 40 years.

  1. The question of our relationship to the counter-culture came up and I wish I had been a bit more nuanced. It’s true that I wrote my book, ‘Student Revolt’, because I didn’t like the way the period was being portrayed/trivialised in popular culture as almost wholly about sex, drugs and rock music. But I should have made the point that, for all our hard-line politics, we were also part of a counter-culture in that we were working and thinking outside the system. We eschewed the ‘proper channels’ established by the La Trobe University Act to channel student discontent – the Student Representative Council – and I recall a leaflet describing the SRC as a ‘glorified high school prefect system’.

Personally, I had a good relationship with the hippy kind of people but I didn’t approve of the idea of ‘dropping out’ of society and living in share-houses or of the drug culture. Indeed, in 1971 or thereabouts, I compiled a pamphlet called ‘Goddam the pusher man’.

I did wear my hair long back then, wore a purple coloured top from London’s trendy Carnaby Street for a while and loved the more edgy music – especially The Animals, Nina Simone, Country Joe and the Fish, and J B Lenoir (one of the few overtly political blues men). And (gulp) I owned a pair of flairs.

My distaste for the idea of communal share-house living reflected my strong commitment to home ownership, something I retain to this day. I had this attitude because from the age of three to five, I was technically homeless (using the Australian Bureau of Statistics definition of homelessness).

My parents and I disembarked at Station Pier, Melbourne, in 1954 and after a very brief stint with my dad’s brother, Joe, who had worked on the wharves since the mid-1920s when he migrated from Malta, we became the ‘drifting migrants’ you see in the movies. My mum used to talk about how we had seven different accommodations – all boarding-houses in Coburg and Brunswick – within our first 21 months in Melbourne. That averages out as a move every three months. In each place, there was a single room for each family, with rooms running off long corridors. A notorious one in West Brunswick was run by a Lithuanian landlady. I was five but still vividly recall the police coming to evict an old drunk from his room. As they forced him out, the landlady ran behind them, screaming in her thick Baltic accent to the poor old bloke: “God help you! God help you!”

‘Housing for all!’ was a communist slogan back then. It should be revived today.

  1. We also shared with the counter-culture a genuine interest in how society could be reorganised, how people could live differently to the alienating system based on wage slavery.

And we were all moved by the wonderful provocative slogans emanating from the 1968 Paris uprising when ten million workers went on strike and students took over the streets with them. I use one of the 1968 Paris slogans as part of the banner of C21st Left: “Sous les paves la plage” – Under the paving stones, the beach!” Awesome stuff and I hope I live long enough to see a revival of the soixante-huitard spirit.

“Society is a carnivorous flower!” Oui!

  1. I had also wanted to mention and discuss Jean Luc Godard’s famous phrase (used in his 1960s film ‘Masculin-Feminin’): “The children of Karl Marx and Coca Cola”. It’s a rich comment, and an accurate one. We were the children of Karl Marx and Coca Cola in so many ways. I’ll flesh this out if I ever write a subjective memoir of those years.
  1. Brian said he was still a communist. Fergus indicated he wasn’t. I described myself as a “revolutionary democrat” who supports all struggles against dictators and tyranny, especially in Syria. I said that I wouldn’t feel safe in North Korea or Cuba or any other nominally ‘communist’ country today. I wish I had expanded on what this means. The reason I wouldn’t be safe is because I’d seek out the dissenters and rebels against ‘dictatorship over the proletariat’.

Revolutionary democracy, to me, is entirely consistent with Marxism. But one can be a revolutionary democrat without being a Marxist. For instance, there are Islamists who are revolutionary democrats (and there are those who are very much the opposite). Under conditions of fascism, people who fight for basic bourgeois democracy can be revolutionary democrats regardless of how they self-identify politically.

For Marxists, the ultimate aim is a more democratic society, one in which democracy is extended to the social and economic realm through the ‘lifters’ overthrowing the rule of the 0.1% who are ‘leaners’ and establishing their own rule. In the C21st, no-one in their right mind will support this if it means one-party dictatorship or a continuation of the current Australian model of two-party dictatorship. They will want a genuine competitive multi-party electoral system, one in which the parliament and other representative bodies reflect accurately and proportionately the people’s will. There is no reason why this cannot be achieved in a system based on social ownership.

  1. Which leads me to my regret that I didn’t once talk about ownership of the means of production. “Means of production”! Sometimes I feel like emulating Howard Beale, the character in Paddy Chayevsky’s great film script, ‘Network’ (1976), by going to a window in a tall building, opening it, and yelling to the universe: “I can’t take it anymore!!” but with the added words: “Why is no-one talking about the means of production?!!!!”

Revolutionary democracy, to me, implies the eventual social ownership of means of producing the stuff society needs, with a view to improving living standards and lifting everyone currently in poverty out of it globally, while also going well beyond catering for ‘social need’ through greatly expanding scientific and technological research and development in the interests of even greater progress – the pursuit of fun and fantasy. The early Suffragettes had it right when they talked about ‘Abundance for all!’ My early interest in communism, in the late 1960s, found that slogan enormously attractive. Old coms often talked like that. Back then.

  1. Early influences. It’s always of interest to others to know how and why someone becomes a communist revolutionary. This is largely because 99.9% of people in the west don’t, and they find it intriguing and weird that anyone would.

The ‘Bold Thinking’ event provided opportunity for each of us to talk about this. Fergus and Brian and I had very different upbringings and socio-economic-family environments. I’m sure we each could have talked more about ourselves, and I’ll do so now partly because, for one thing, I regret not being able to explain the extent to which I was already political when I first went to La Trobe in 1969.

I had been involved in the campaign against capital punishment – the hanging of Ronald Ryan – in 1966 and 1967. It was easy as a 15 year old to cycle from my home in West Brunswick up to Coburg to attend protests outside Pentridge Gaol. This year is my 50th ‘on the left’.

In my final years of high school, 1968, I attended the ‘riot’ outside the US Consulate in Commercial Road, St Kilda, Melbourne. The militancy helped ‘bring the war home’ and also jolted the CPA revisionists who had assumed they could keep leading and controlling the growing Vietnam solidarity movement. I was in my school uniform and my emotional response to the police riot, baton assaults and mass arrests left me both very frightened and excited by the fact that people were fighting back.

It may have been my first experience of the feeling that I was taking part in something much bigger than Australia. I had seen footage of the French and US student uprisings of that year – thanks to television. I felt for the first time that little ol’ me was part of a truly international movement of solidarity. (It was not, however, my first riot, as I had been at Festival Hall, West Melbourne, in 1965 when the Mongolian Stomper attacked Domenic DeNucci with the heavy brass ringside bell causing 7,000 Italian wrestling fans to engage in riotous behaviour that required the attendance of many police and several police divisional vans).

  1. And speaking of my old friend Television, I should have thanked it for bringing the world into my lounge-room. News reports of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, when I was 11, stay with me to this day, as does film of Bull Connor setting vicious attack dogs onto black protestors in Alabama. Connor was a Democrat of the ‘southern’ kind and Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety. There was also footage on the news of the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa. I wasn’t just disappointed or saddened by what was happening. I was angry – an anger intensified by the juxtaposition of programs like ‘Leave it to Beaver’, which promoted the idealised American family, against the real world characterised by so much oppression, suffering and resistance. Programs like ‘The Twilight Zone’ were among my favourites. In taking me into “a world of imagination”, Rod Serling really helped spark my imagination. Subversive stuff.
  1. Another cultural influence of that time – another expression of the ‘Coca Cola’ in Godard’s formulation – was science-fiction literature (and movies). For a few years in my teenage years I read short stories in that genre and received at Christmas the year’s ‘Best of Sci Fi’ collections. Back then, there wasn’t so much dystopianism. Arthur C Clarke in particular saw the positive potential in rapid technological development. To this day, I believe in reaching for the stars, figuratively and literally. But we won’t get there via capitalism, where R&D is constrained by the pursuit of maximum profit and concentrated private ownership. I would have liked to have made that point on the night.
  1. Still on personal influences, I told the audience how my parents were wage workers, my dad a factory worker and we were on the lower socio-economic side of life. I spent about 30 years growing up in Brunswick, which was all pretty much ‘lower socio-economic’ with many migrants from diverse places and many factories. You could be sure back then that wherever there were lots of migrants there would also be lots of factories. For more than ten years I lived next door to one. Its high red brick wall was the view a metre from my bedroom, blocking out the sun.

Perhaps coming from that background was the reason I do not share Fergus’ view that university life was fairly drab and that the left provided an avenue into stimulation from the boredom. To me, just going to the campus – two bus rides and eleven kilometres away in a strangely named suburb called Bundoora – was excitement in itself. My parents never owned a car and everything went into paying off our house. We never had a family holiday. I knew – and still know – West Brunswick like the back of my hand – every back alley, road and side street. There was a strong neighbourly ethos among some along my street but there was also insularity. For instance, West Brunswick ‘boys’ viewed East Brunswick, on ‘the other side’ of Sydney Road, with caution while we all regarded Coburg people as toffs and snobs. For me, going to La Trobe University in 1969 was like a whole new universe opening up. The politics was icing on that cake. I was meeting people of my own age cohort who lived on properties with beautiful gum trees in places I’d never normally visit, like Montmorency and Eltham. Not a factory wall in sight.

Brunswick suffered three main social problems back then: alcoholism, gambling and domestic violence. In my family home, there was no gambling and no alcoholism. Two out of three ain’t bad.

The act of going to university each day, all that way from Brunswick, was in itself liberating for me. An escape. I loved it.

  1. There was a smattering of applause when Brian declared that ‘the New Left’ treated women very badly. I noticed that some of those applauding were not our age cohorts, so wondered how did they know?

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I would gladly have swapped places with a woman, had one been able to replace me as a target in the Supreme Court injunctions, but none were in positions of leadership at that time to experience that degree of state repression. Was this because of the undoubtedly male dominated nature of the left’s leadership at La Trobe? Did the men hold them back, consciously? I don’t think so.

Was there a problem with male chauvinism? Yes.

When I enrolled at La Trobe I broadly sympathised with equality for women but I also brought with me the common assumptions about men and women of that time. I didn’t come from a ‘bohemian’ bayside background, where Simone de Beauvoir was discussed over fine wine in the evenings. Some of my personal attitudes and expectations were quite conservative in that regard. I was fairly backward in some ways but, as a slow learner, I’m a good learner. While achieving much progress for women, the women’s movement also challenged and changed many men. Including me.

Was there also egalitarianism within the left? Yes again. (I wish I had a dollar for every leaflet I typed – it’s a myth that women did all the typing. It is true, though, that nearly all the leaflets were written by men – which is certainly proof of male dominance).

Going by memory, I think the first regular newssheet published by a women’s lib group on the campus was called ‘Women Arise’ in 1970 (or perhaps 1969). Helen Reddy’s magnificent anthem, ‘I am woman’ was a year or two away but, to me, it sums up all that was and is great about the best politics of women’s liberation. No hint of victimhood, it is a song of defiance, determination and optimism.

I told the audience that I strongly supported the Women’s Liberation movement back then. I did, and still do. It was a very effective movement with clear, attainable, political objectives and it included many socialist women. I regard it as one of the great socio-cultural-political developments of the C20th. But it certainly fragmented – as part of the left’s rapid decline, I would argue – and some of the later varieties of feminism were distinctively not socialist and some were divisive and reactionary.

Any “ism” that uses the term “white men” as though it somehow wins an argument or proves a point, let alone as an insult, loses me as someone influenced by Marxism. These days, I’m favourably disposed to the libertarian feminists who, while not socialist, none the less display some of the qualities of the soixante-huitards. Conservative feminists don’t like them very much. I would have liked to make the point that, in my opinion, we need more Pussy Riots and fewer neo-Mary-Whitehouses.

An old comrade from the La Trobe days has made this comment: “The effect was certainly one of male dominance. A more contentious and important issue is that of intent. Did we write stuff out of a sense of ‘male entitlement’ or because we had things to say and stepped onto a stage that was as much our own making as not? Did we exclude women, that is, discourage their involvement? That is not my memory and the problem I have with the proposition that we did (it’s more an assumption than a proposition) is that it delivers a nice backhander to the women, a more pernicious form of sexism than anything I can remember us being guilty of”.

  1. Smash Soviet social-imperialism! Fergus and Brian and I made it clear that we believed in international solidarity but it’s a pity none of us mentioned the fact that we supported the student and worker uprisings ‘behind the Iron Curtain’ as well as in the west. Again, I was a slow but good learner and came to regard the Czech and Polish rebellions as part and parcel of our own struggle. It made sense from a Marxist revolutionary democrat perspective to support the Polish Solidarity movement later and to rejoice in the fall of the Berlin Wall. I had no problem with the Maoist line that saw Soviet social-imperialism as an ascendant threat and US imperialism in decline following its defeat in Indo-China. Richard Nixon’s memoir (1978) shows how Mao and Zhou En Lai wanted more than just normalised diplomatic relations with the US in facing the Soviet threat.
  1. Decline of the revolutionary left. I know that several hours would have been required to discuss and debate the above points. It’s understandable that people are interested mostly in the dynamic period of the late 1960s to early 1970s when there was so much passion, intensity, dedication, excitement, argument, optimism and resistance to repression. But I would have liked to have said something about the period of decline too, which I think was starting during 1972. The subsequent years in the 1970s were nothing like the period from 1968 to 1971, in activism or in spirit, and I’m still waiting for the spirit of ’68 to re-emerge in the C21st.

The period from 1972 to 1980 warrants the same level of investigation and discussion as the earlier period but this has not been undertaken. From my point of view, those years were characterised by increasing dogmatism. We stopped thinking anew, or dialectically. In some cases, ‘we’ turned into our opposites. I know this from personal experience, and to a large extent it happened to me.

One of the important lessons I learned from my activism back then is that it is very hard to think critically or dialectically. And it is even harder to think for oneself.

  1. People usually want to know whether the gaolings, and involvement in left revolutionary politics, had an impact on our employment and careers. In my case, it had a very negative effect later in the 1970s when I was black-listed by the Director-General of the Victorian Education Department. I had completed my Diploma of Education and worked as an Emergency (or Relief) teacher in the Technical Schools Division of the Education Department. Back then, the principals of the schools could employ such casual teachers without needing the approval of the Department. To cut a long story short (I must write it up one day), I had been working at various schools on a casual basis, hoping to eventually be offered a ‘permanent’ teaching job, which would mean having a career and some security. I still have the references from principals of those schools and they range from good to very good in their assessments of me.

Finally, the principal at one of the schools told me that a full-time teacher was retiring and he would like to have me on the staff as an on-going teacher. I was thrilled, as I had been hoping for such an opportunity for many months. The principal took me into his office and rang the Staffing Office in my presence. He told the person on the phone that he had someone to replace the other teacher but when he mentioned my name the response made his face drop. His tone changed and at the end of the call he turned to me and said, “I’m very sorry, Barry, they told me you’re not to be employed”.

It’s hard for me to describe what a personal blow this was – in 1976 or 1977. It knocked me badly, emotionally and psychologically.

I was called to attend a meeting with someone from the Staffing Office, on a street corner in the CBD (I kid you not). I was told that the meeting was strictly ‘off the record’. The officer told me that “someone upstairs” had marked my file “Not to be employed” and that the reason was because I was “a known political activist”.

Of course, I went straight to the union with this news and, to their credit, the union leaders saw the issue in a principled way, as one of opposing the political black-listing of qualified teachers. I was able to keep working on a casual basis, as the Department regulations allowed principals in each school to decide who to take on as a Relief teacher. I had a lot of support and worked pretty much full-time as a Relief teacher, going from school to school as required. The fact that I was doing well in the classrooms, sometimes five days a week, completely undermined any arguments from the Department that I was not suitable for permanent employment.

It took about 18 months of protests, meetings, negotiations, and utter anguish on my part (I was almost certainly clinically depressed during this period) before the Director-General, Laurie Shears, surrendered and I was given an on-going teaching job. A highlight of the struggle was when the three separate teacher unions – The Victorian Teachers Union, the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association and the Technical Teachers Union of Victoria united and stopped work on my behalf. I was told by the TTUV president that it was the first time that the three teacher unions had taken united action.

Mao said that reactionaries lift a rock only to drop it on their own feet. I have experienced and witnessed that truth many times.

Barry victimisation by Education Dept - Brunswick Sentinel - 23 Nov 1977

 

  1. I hope this piece will prompt others from that period, or those with an interest in it, to send in their thoughts on that period of struggle… and beyond.

Struggle - La Trobe heroes cover 1972

Bill Leak (1956-2017) – ‘waking up with a roaring fatwa’

“It’s a strange world when the most conservative people on earth call themselves ‘progressives’ and no one bats an eyelid” – email from Bill Leak, 4-10-15

“These people are trying to take us down the road to fascism. It might be nice, PC, inclusive, compassionate, non-gender specific smiley-face fascism but it’s still fascism” – email from Bill Leak, 30-10-16

****

marx cartoon - Bill Leak

I had the privilege of becoming one of Bill Leak’s friends. We corresponded, sometimes in substantial emails, and chatted by phone. We never met, but wanted to.

I did not agree with all his cartoons, needless to say, but defended his right to express his views via his excellent technical skills, brilliant intellect and wit, powerful way with words and awesome imagination. In terms of political philosophy, I had very little in common with those on the Right who supported him – other than a shared, stated, commitment to free speech.

And I didn’t agree when he would use the term ‘the Left’ to assail his opponents. It was understandable that he would regard the censorious reactionary creeps who John Pilger and Andrew Bolt both agree are ‘the Left’ as actually constituting some kind of left. After all, where is the alternative – a genuine Left – in public discourse? But I managed to point out to him that the Left is not defined by self-labelling, or by the right-wing media, or by some dogmatic formula into which reality is forced, but rather by long-established values and theory, and politics based on the ever-changing real world.

In an article Bill wrote defiantly for ‘The Australian’ after being summoned before the Human Rights Commission, he again attacked ‘the Left’. I emailed him, arguing that “such types have nothing in common with Marx’s rebellious spirit, let alone revolutionary political philosophy, and the term ‘pseudo-left’ and ‘faux-Marxists’ needs to be popularised”.

Bill’s response:

“Thanks SO much, Barry. If ONLY I’d spoken to you while writing it. I squirmed in my chair for a fortnight but couldn’t come up with the terms pseudo left and faux-Marxists and now it’s too late”.

 

****

Our contact began when I wrote to him, three or four years ago, to congratulate him on an excellent cartoon in ‘The Australian’, attacking a union boss who had been dog-whistling about ‘foreign workers’. As a leftist influenced by Marxism, I knew there was no such thing as foreigners when it came to the working class. I told Bill. He agreed.

Foreign workers’ cartoon… (112 years) after Livingston Hopkins… 

 Bill Leak cartoon - foreign workers - cropped

 

He had an indomitable sense of humour and wit. Early in 2015, when very serious death threats were made against him by Islamo-fascists, he had to uproot his family and move house and studio at short notice, and adopt a false name. Armed protection had to be arranged for him and his family. His crime had been to portray a figure in a cartoon that resembled Muhammad. It was not gratuitous stuff, but a response to the murder of cartoonists in France.

“Je suis Charlie’. Remember?

Bill’s response to me, in an email was:

“In much the same way that it takes a bit of time before you can laugh at tragedies, it might still take a while before Goong [his wife] and I can laugh about all this upheaval. I feel pretty sure though that it won’t be long before I’ll be able to say, “You remember that day when I woke up with a roaring fatwa? Best thing that ever happened for both of us.”

He continued:

“It is of course galling to read the letters in the paper from people “daring” me to “dare” to draw a cartoon that may offend Muslims in the way Saturday’s cartoon appears to have offended some of the more humourless Christians. It’s not as if I can write a letter myself, demanding they go back and check the cartoon from January 10. I’d love to tell them it resulted in me having to find a new home and live under an assumed name because the people I’d “offended” wanted to square things up by tracking me down and cutting my head off but, for obvious reasons, the less people know about it the better.

 

“Right now the thing that worries me most is the prospect of discovering I’m being targeted by Evangelical Christians, wanting to turn up at my place in a mini-bus and stand around on the front lawn strumming guitars and singing songs at me.

“One fatwa at a time, please!”

 

State censorship and the spirit of ’68…

As someone radicalised in the 1960s, who still regards 1968 as the Left’s finest year and high point internationally, I saw in Bill’s spirit and many of his cartoons the long-lost spirit of that year: its irreverence, rebelliousness, defiance and challenge to the dominant ideology (what we today call ‘Political Correctness’ – yes, it was around back then but in an openly right-wing form).

Much of the censorship back then was undertaken by the state under the guise of clamping down on obscenity. There was an Obscene Publications Act, which banned art and writings that members of a Vice Squad regarded as sufficiently pornographic for them to physically remove them from bookshops. If a magistrate shared the Vice Squad’s view, then the literature was banned.

Publications exposing US war crimes in Vietnam were also banned under the Obscene Publications Act. At high school, I unlawfully distributed the banned pamphlet, ‘US atrocities in Vietnam’ (I think it was called that, from memory).

The attempt at state intimidation and censorship that Bill Leak experienced, and fought, was undertaken via ‘human rights’ legislation: the Racial Discrimination Act. Go figure. And see the Appendix below for Bill’s email of 30-10-16 as to why and how the cartoon sought to support Indigenous people in remote communities and was not racist.

Every society has a dominant sense of what is right and wrong, what is fair comment and what is going too far, but the real question concerns the parameters as set down by the state, by official censorship.

That action could be taken against a cartoonist in the C21st by an arm of the state – and let’s not be coy about it, that’s what the Human Rights Commission is – showed that the parameters are way too broad and censorious. Even the Greens Senator, Nick McKim, stated on national television that he felt Bill’s controversial ‘Dear old dad’ cartoon was exempt under Section 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act (which basically exempts on the grounds of ‘fair comment’).

‘Dear old dad’ cartoon…

leak dear old dad

Bill tapped into a mood of resentment on the part of many people who grew sick and tired of being smugly admonished by their finger-prodding ‘betters’ in the Establishment that they should not do this or that, or think ‘like that’. This is not to suggest that those feeling resentment are always right, they are not, but the culture of Political Correctness has made nuance almost impossible. You either toe the line entirely or you are racist and any variety of ‘phobe’. There is little room in this culture for debate, for the open clash of conflicting ideas. In this context, ‘Being offended’ has become an argument – a case for opposition to something – rather than just a subjective feeling.

Punching up… at the cultural establishment

Those who accused Bill of ‘punching down’ have it upside down. His cartoons in the main were actually punching up, challenging those at the top, the decision-makers, those with great and sometimes dominant influence in the media, the senior bureaucracy, bourgeois academia, the ‘aristocracy of labour’ (or ‘union bosses’ as we described them in the communist party) and mainstream politicians of all stripes who, in general, prefer to deny or obfuscate life-threatening problems and restrict civil liberties. It takes a weird sense of victimhood – a denial of human agency – to see it the other way ‘round.

No other mainstream cartoonist so incisively mocked the Green quasi-religion. His ‘Christine Milne’ sitting self-righteously with the fairies at the bottom of the garden, in vivid unreal technicolour, was among my favourites.

Green fairies at the bottom of the garden…

leak milne

No other cartoonist so effectively challenged economic protectionism. None so willingly revealed the absurdity of all the religions, including the quasi-religious totalitarian impulses of the reactionary pseudo-left. None so courageously stood up to the current brand of ‘clerico-fascism’.

He will be best remembered for his defence of free speech. He stood up to fascists, at great personal cost. To me, regardless of the cartoons with which I disagreed, those qualities make him a cultural hero.

I’m devastated by his death, and disgusted by the attacks he endured from what passes for ‘the left’ today, by the state and by Islamo-fascists.

Bill, thank you for your work, and for having me as a friend. And for your spirit, the best long-term hope for which is the revival of a genuine left.

* * * *

Appendix:

 

Bill’s email of 30-10-16 on why his ‘Dear old dad’ cartoon was not racist:

Sorry I didn’t reply to your previous email that arrived just a few days after I received news I was about to be hauled before the Inquisition. Since then I’ve discovered drawing cartoons and fighting the dark forces of tyranny at the same time is bloody hard work and doesn’t leave me with much time to spare for writing emails.

I have to give my cartoons names when I put them up on the website and the name I gave the one that’s caused all this latest trouble was “Dear Old Dad”. Well, dear old dad is having one hell of an impact. I hoped it would prompt people to take a good, hard look at the plight of aboriginal kids in remote communities but it seems that’s something so confronting they prefer not to look at it at all. So much easier to accuse me of racism for having brought the subject up. It’s pleasing to see, though, that finally the virtue signallers are running out of abuse to hurl at me and the conversation is starting to focus on the little boy in the middle of it and his indescribably sad, desperate life. The cartoon was supposed to be about him after all, for Christ’s sake. Col Dillon (Anthony’s father) [both of Indigenous ancestry] rang me on the morning of the day it was published to thank me and congratulate me for doing it. He knew what I was trying to say and knowing he was glad to see I’d tried to say it clearly was good enough for me. 

I grew up in a place in the bush called Condobolin among aboriginal kids. When I went back there in 2001 (for the first time in over 30 years) it was depressing to see how much worse things were for the indigenous people than they were in the 60s. Intergenerational welfare dependency is like a slow working poison. Killing with kindness is just the ticket I suppose if, deep down, what you really want to do is discreetly eradicate a population while simultaneously parading your compassion and telling everyone how much you care.

To tell you the truth I had no idea dear old dad would also trigger a debate on 18C, let alone that I’d end up at the pointy end of a battle to get it amended or (dare I hope) repealed. Two shitfights for the price of one! Perhaps by now Southpommasane and Triggs might be regretting they decided to try to rid themselves of this turbulent cartoonist. But they did, and I’m going to fight like buggery. It’s just as well I like a blue, Barry.

These people are trying to take us down the road to fascism. It might be nice, PC, inclusive, compassionate, non-gender specific smiley-face fascism but it’s still fascism. And if that’s where we end up the Triggses and Southpossums and all their fellow members of ‘the new monocled top-hatted elite who hold the workers in disdain for their consumerism’ won’t know what hit them. – Bill Leak, 30-10-16

leak bob dylan

 

Daesh, the (pseudo) Left, and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution

“The role of socialists is not to counterpose themselves to democratic revolutions, which gave rise (in Egypt) to the first democratic government, and (in Syria) to emancipatory projects such as networks of local councils against the existing state, but to take the democratic side against tyranny”.

My response: WHY for heaven’s sake does this even have to be stated?

The reason is because of the general failure to understand that ‘socialists’ who side with tyrants are not worthy of the name, and that the pseudo-left which has been dominant for decades needs to be called out. I wish the reviewer had used that term rather than seeming to accept that one can oppose democratic revolution and still be on the left.

9780992650964-cov-front-sml

 

The following book review is published with permission of Syria Solidarity UK.

* * * *

Khiyana: Daesh, the Left, and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution, ed. Jules Alford and Andy Wilson, published by Unkant, London.

Review by Clara Connolly

This book should be required reading for every leftist, as an antidote to the growing mountain of ignorant comment on the subject of Syria. The title Khiyana (betrayal) is an accusing cry; the book is a trenchant denunciation of the Western Left for its abandonment of the principles of internationalism and solidarity in favour of an alignment with the ‘anti imperialist’ camp, a hangover from the geo-politics of the Cold War.

Assad An-Nar, like most of the authors, situates himself on the Marxist left, and his prefatory chapter could be considered a direct response to Tariq Ali’s infamous dismissal of the Arab Spring in What is a Revolution? (Guernica, Sept. 2013). He sets his critique in the context of the changing nature of revolution in an age of global neoliberalism, where post colonial states are collapsing because neoliberal policies have slashed the limited social protections they used to offer. In this world, he says, the principles of self emancipation and of collective and democratic struggle are ‘ideas in search of a subject.’ Ideas about democracy, socialism, and anti-imperialism used to run in the same direction, but now they are counterposed.

With the collapse of the progressive moment of secular Arab nationalism, Islamist organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood can rise beyond identity/sectarian politics in resistance to tyranny. Though not necessarily opposed to neoliberalism, they are the voice of those who are excluded from its benefits. Hezbollah’s current role in Syria shows that such movements can swing between revolution and counter revolution without moving in a socialist direction.

The role of socialists is not to counterpose themselves to democratic revolutions, which gave rise (in Egypt) to the first democratic government, and (in Syria) to emancipatory projects such as networks of local councils against the existing state, but to take the democratic side against tyranny. Instead the left has responded by either supporting their favourite dictatorships (the neo Stalinists) or by re-hashing theories of ‘permanent revolution,’ i.e. insisting that revolutions can only end in socialism or defeat (the Trotskyists). Yes, he says, a democratic revolution is possible in these countries, but the outcomes are uncertain; the socialist left, while recognising its marginal role, should not condemn itself to irrelevance by denouncing the struggles for democracy because they are not socialist. Instead he urges the left to make the ‘democratic wager,’ in hope that the outcomes lead to more collective forms of struggle. There is little to lose for socialists, he believes, since neoliberalism has led worldwide to the fatal weakening of working class self-organisation.

The subsequent chapters examine and demolish the standard left myths about the Syrian revolution: the ‘jihadist’ nature of the ‘rebels’; the selective anti imperialism which admires Rojava but has no time for similar experiments in local democracy elsewhere in Syria; the role of regional imperialisms like Iran and Russia in propping up a monstrous regime; and above all the lies and distortions peddled by the institutional left (Stop the War Coalition, and the éminence grise of left journalism like Patrick Cockburn, Robert Fisk, and Seymour Hersh) who place the national interests of states they consider to be in the ‘axis of resistance’ above solidarity with the struggles of the oppressed in those countries.

In a short review I can refer only to two further articles in the core of the book; but I cannot resist a passing mention of the glorious satirical piece by M Idrees Ahmad, The Anti-Imperialist Guide to Inaction in Syria. Anyone familiar with debate on Syria will recognise the strategies he lists: ‘Don’t defend Assad, attack his opponents; sympathise selectively; functional doubt where straight denial is risky; defend peace and sovereignty; champion the minorities; talk about ISIS, not Assad; talk about refugees but not the cause of flight,’ etc. Most of these strategies are shared with the establishment and the extreme Right.

Mark Boothroyd describes the responses of Stop the War Coalition (STWC) to Syria, in a case study that echoes the critique in the preface. It has consistently viewed developments through its relation to the US and the UK. In a multi polar world system with competing imperialisms, it persists in viewing events through the prism of the Cold War. The agency of Syrians is erased altogether.

In 2013, STWC opposed the proposed intervention of the UK and when this proposal was defeated in Parliament, it claimed victory; but Boothroyd claims that if the West had really wanted to intervene in Syria it would have done so—its actual strategy is to let the country bleed. I think he underestimates the power of popular protest in democratic countries, and the degree to which STWC was able to tap into post Iraq war weariness. But he is right in pointing out that STWC has missed a trick in failing to expose the real cruelties of the Western role.

In its weaker response to the 2015 intervention against ISIS, STWC has consistently refused to allow oppositional Syrians on its platforms—who have opposed the Coalition campaign against ISIS as useless and counter-productive, but have also proposed more positive measures for the protection of Syrian civilians. Once again, its failure to listen to Syrians has weakened its moral stance even in its own terms—in opposing its own Government.

It could have been different, he believes: the anti war movement could have risen beyond its current ethnocentric, isolationist positions to meet the challenge of changing times, and been a movement to build solidarity with the revolutions in the Middle East.

In The Rise of Daesh in Syria, Sam Charles Hamad attacks the myth of Saudi funding and support for Daesh; instead, in a detailed study, he convincingly shows their deadly rivalry despite their similar ideologies. He demonstrates the origins of Daesh in post invasion Iraq, and its nurture by the sectarian regimes in Iraq and Syria. He shows, by tracing its sources of income, how it is self sustaining. Finally he argues that the current tactics of the west, in fighting Daesh from the air but hampering the oppositions in their fight against the sectarian regimes of Assad and Maliki, are counter-productive. And the left’s narrative is complicit in this.

The book, and particularly its opening chapter, is weakened by a failure to examine more closely such terms as ‘democracy’ and ‘emancipation,’ given their ambivalent history among Marxists; and to analyse the demands of the revolution—Freedom Justice and Dignity—in more detail. This is particularly the case since there is little discussion of class, and no accounts of the role of women in the Syrian revolution, nor of the role of Western women’s peace groups or feminists in relation to Syria. My own recent experience of organising solidarity events with Syrian women suggests that the hostility to, and silencing of, Syrian voices is much less prevalent among feminist organisations than in the left as a whole. The ‘democratic wager’ which is urged upon us might be weighted more favourably with the inclusion of women activists, within Syria and in the West.

THE KERR COUP AGAINST WHITLAM – 40 YEARS ON, STILL A MYTH

Originally published in Strange Times, no.10 April 1991. (This article was written well before Keating launched his ‘republican debate’.) On 11 November 1975 the Australian Governor General, Sir John Kerr, dismissed the Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, on the grounds that he was unable to get the budget through the Opposition dominated upper house (the Senate). Kerr then appointed the opposition leader Malcom Fraser caretaker Prime Minister and called an election. Fraser subsequently won the election in a landslide.

I am republishing the discussion about the article as well, including my own which is the last comment below. I sum up my position thus: I look back on the semi-fascist coup analysis now with a sense of bewilderment. The writ by which Whitlam was sacked specified that a caretaker government be appointed and that an election be held. There’s nothing fascistic about that. Why then did people who had good leftwing credentials pursue that line?

****

THE KERR COUP – ANOTHER MYTH

The recent death of former Governor-General John Kerr is a good excuse to look back over the way the left reacted to his sacking of Whitlam. It is a remarkable example of how people who claimed to be radical leftists could tie themselves to the coat tails of the Laborites. They convinced themselves of all sorts of conspiracy theories about CIA involvement and described the sacking as a semi-fascist coup – a case of the ruling class abandoning parliamentary institutions. The left’s analysis of the Whitlam sacking is second only to its stance on the Gulf War as an example of its cretinism.

Essentially all Kerr did was to force the most unpopular government in Australian history to face the electorate. According to the left this was all terribly fascist because the government’s unpopularity was due to a malicious media campaign engineered by the media barons and multinationals. However, given the ability of the Whitlam government to shoot itself in the foot every other week, it would have required the media to be actively biased in its favour for it not to show the government in a bad light. It was also the time of the worst world economic downturn since the depression of the 1930s and for that reason alone very few elected governments anywhere in the world survived the mid 1970s.

The left was also outraged at the Liberal’s blocking supply in the Senate. The Labor Government liked to describe the House of Representatives as the ‘people’s house’ and to claim that it was being de_ed by the Senate which is elected on a less representative basis. This is a funny argument given that Fraser’s main interest was in getting an election for the lower house, so that ‘the people could decide’. It was Labour that was keen to avoid that at all costs. They had schemes for calling half senate elections, anything but an election over who was to govern.

Certainly the royalist institution of Governor-General should be replaced by a president, but that is another issue. Hopefully the appointment to the position of a republican and atheist in the person of Bill Hayden will do much to hasten its demise.

________________

• Re: The Kerr “coup” – Another myth
Posted by keza at 2005-11-24 10:01 PM

There’s a detailed account of the events referred to in the article above in the the Wikipedia entry for Sir John Kerr…

I notice that the “left” is still referring to what happened as a “coup” eg the following was posted on the GreenLeft website Just recently (November 11):

The enduring political significance of the coup lies in the fact that it demonstrated, in a particularly dramatic form, how ruthlessly the ruling class is prepared to defend its interests. Behind the assiduously cultivated façade of parliamentary democracy lies the organised violence of the capitalist state, ready to be called upon when needed.

Never mind that all John Kerr really did was to insist that an immediate general election be held.

Never mind that prior to this he had given Whitlam the opportunity to call a general election himself – and Whitlam had refused.

And never mind that when the election happened the Labour Party suffered a landslide defeat.

The pseudo- left dismissal of the recent Iraqi elections is a continuation of the same style of thinking. It indicates a deep misunderstanding of the meanings of words like “fascist”, “coup” and “democracy” as well a contempt for people as gullible victims of manipulation.

The genuine left always defends hard won democratic rights while pushing for more of them. Governments should have to face the electorate more often, not less often.

_________________

• government or referendum?
Posted by kerrb at 2005-11-25 08:38 PM
keza wrote:
Governments should have to face the electorate more often, not less often

Why? I think that needs more explanation.

Should governments be allowed to get on with the job or should policy be decided by a series of referendums? Don’t we already have enough populism and governments afraid to bite the bullet? What government today would introduce a measure that would have long term benefits 20 years down the track but few short term benefits – for example an intensive preschool program in disadvantaged areas?

If there were elections in USA right now then Bush would probably lose and I don’t think that would be a good thing. Should we get behind the Unions populism and demand that Howard’s IR reforms be decided by a new election? They are unpopular despite an expensive and phoney government advertising campaign.

From a broader perspective many correct ideas lack popular support: atheism, communism, the idea that we are not on the verge of environmental catastrophe. Democracy is a good idea too, far superior to fascism, but the concept of deciding everything by 51% vote has its limitations IMO. I’m not clear about the solutions.

The Whitlam government was elected in December 1972 and initiated a lot of reforms many of which were blocked by the hostile Senate. Because of this Whitlam called another election in May 1974 but that backfired, he was re-elected with a reduced majority. Obstruction from the Senate continued leading to the blocking of supply.

After the Queen’s representative intervened and sacked the Whitlam government there was another election in December 1975 which Whitlam this time lost. Three elections in three years, was that good?

Given that the Whitlam government was the first labour government since 1946 then it was easy to get the impression that the Liberals believed they were born to rule.

I take the point that what happened then wasn’t fascism, that that was bad analysis. But the combination of the Liberals born to rule attitude and the colonial relics in our constitution (Queens representative) were sound reasons to oppose The Dismissal.

And I still like Whitlam’s anger and speech on parliament house steps: “Well may we sing God Save the Queen… Because nothing will save the Governor-General”. Guess I’m a sucker for a nice piece of rhetoric.

_________________________

Bill Kerr
• Re: government or referendum?
Posted by keza at 2005-11-25 11:13 PM
Well of course populism can be a problem. The majority isn’t always right, people embrace all sorts of backward ideas etc etc. But the solution can’t be to support having restrictions on the democratic process. If there is popular support for backward or reactionary policies then it’s up to progressive people to fight for better ideas. The way I see it, the more opportunities for people to have their say, the more opportunities are provided for genuine struggle and the overall lifting of the general level of debate and understanding.

I remember this happening on a small scale in the Melbourne Moratorium debates in Richmond Town Hall (1970’s). As far as I know, the Melbourne Moratorium was run differently from the Moratoriums in other Australian cities because rather than being organised from on high by a committee, the major decisions were taken by open public meetings where policy issues were subject to a debate followed by a vote.

As a consequence the Melbourne moratorium policies were far to the left of anywhere else in Australia – eg here the USwas clearly labeled as an imperialist aggressor whereas in other places the policies were mainly pacifist. When there is genuine debate about things, the better ideas do tend to win out. It is lack of discussion and lack of opportunity to engage in any sort of democratic process which leads to the persistence of reactionary ideas.
If the voting system here in Australia was based on proportional representation this would break the current two party system but it would also have the effect of giving representation to all sorts of smallish groups – many of them with more reactionary policies than either Labour or Liberal. It would also lead to more unstable government. But I’d see both these things as good relative to the situation we have now. Anything which opens things up and gives people more of a chance to engage with the issues of the day has to be a good thing from a progressive perspective.

I think this has been happening in Iraq. Opponents of regime change have talked endlessly of the dangers of democracy in Iraq claiming that the result would be an Islamic state. the Iraqis aren’t ready for democracy, there’s no chance of the Shia, Kurds and Sunnis working things out, what they need is a strong leader etc etc.

If there was to be an election in the US aimed at trying to bring down Bush and his policies then the issues wouod have to be fought out. I think that would be a good thing.

________________________

• Re: government or referendum?
Posted by tomb at 2005-11-26 12:12 AM
perhaps not a fear of elections but a fear of losing. (whitlam would relate to this given his close relationship with the fascist indonesian government and support for the annexation of east timor)

________________________

• Re: government or referendum?
Posted by kerrb at 2005-11-26 01:27 AM
keza,

You have cited some good examples where more democracy / extended democracy is a very good thing – Melbourne Moratorium, proportional representation, Iraq elections …

It’s a fundamental point and as a general principle I agree … extended democracy combined with real discussion does work in favour of the best ideas winning through and there are precious few examples of discussion of this sort in Australian politics.

However, I can also think of examples where not following established democratic procedures was a good thing too … the US / Coalition of the Willing invasion of Iraq for example, not supported by the United Nations … I think the argument here is that fighting fascism is a more urgent principle

As for holding regular referendums in the USA about whether to continue the Iraq war, that strikes me as impractical – pull the troops out, a few months later send ’em back in – you can’t fight a war like that.

_________________________

Bill Kerr
• Re: government or referendum?
Posted by anita at 2005-11-26 05:35 AM

Thanks for following up my post, and apologies for the obtuseness of my original post.

What is highlighted is the paradoxical nature of democracy. (Take it away AL) I think it was courageous of Gough Whitlam to try and stand for his policies via election, but he didnot read the writing on the wall after they were soundly rejected and his majority was reduced. We know the outcome of his failure to take account of the mood of the electorate.

Politics is about brinkmanship and government’s can fall. My gut feeling is that a smart politician probably says yes to elections when out of office, and No when in office. I take the points Bill, but don’t think the example really works because the coalition did follow established democratic procedures, but broke from the outcome of those procedures muttering something about the numbers.

There is something to be said for a binding caucus type of principle but there comes a time when you might have to walk as the coalition did over failure to reach a necessary or desired outcome.

I support Proportional Representation with four year terms, but think that it is probably ok to maintain the Australian custom of the govt choosing the election time. I also think that the Australian practice of no limit on the number of terms in office is preferable to the American provision for 2 terms only. IMO it is about accountability, and George Bush for instance would be much more accountable and useful if he was facing the prospect of a third term in office.

Back to the so-called Kerr ‘coup’ which we find is not a coup. It was not, as happened in my own sphere of involvement, (Flinders uni in Sth Australia, mid 90’s) where democracy was about Annual elections; General Student Meetings; and Action Groups – there was a referendum policy measure that worked quite well in the circumstances – but I too would not recommend governing a country by referenda on policy questions) a matter of being hit with an unconstitutional referendum and having to wear the disastrous consequences of ‘boycotting’ said referendum, once the uni administration was convinced that pushing through an unconstitutional was in their political intrerests.

This resulted in… I’m losing count… maybe 4 or 5 full elections at Flinders in 1995.

Anyway in the example of Whitlam’s sacking, it was brought upon himself. So I don’t think his sacking – or more recently the decision to go to war in Iraq, strayed far from accepted democratic and legal conventions at all.

Bugger, I replied to the response and not the main topic,,, and now have only the last message to re-read before concluding these late-at-night, hastily written words. For better, or worse, and before i drag up anymore of my Flinders uni. memories.

c’est la vie

c’est la guerre

Que sera sera

Fare-the-well the ALP* student movement. (To the tune of Polly Wolly Doodle all the day)

Best of all RIP NUS** (I could not help myself) (

Anita

* ALP = Australian Labour Party

** NUS = National Union of Students)

• Re: The Kerr “coup” – Another myth
Posted by arthur at 2005-11-26 10:41 AM
Great to see Anita republishing stuff from “Red Politics”. Already seems to have raised the level of discussion by provoking deeper thought on both imperialism and “The Dismissal”. Hope this stuff gets properly integrated into the folder navigation structure of the site for permanent reference rather than lost in more ephemeral forum discussions. Also hope to see us starting to write articles like that from a current perspective (and David, who wrote both of those and many other excellent articles more than a decade ago, adding some more).

This topic has already branched into two additional issues of more contemporary and global (non-Australian) significance – “Revolutionary Democracy” (including the dialectics of leadership and mass line in broad struggles we have had experience of such as the student movement and Vietnam solidarity movement and “Constitutional Reform” (including electoral systems).

I’d like to see both of those separated out into topics of their own (and will do so myself if not beaten to it). Bill’s points about populism, majoritarianism, biting the bullet and not being limited by process is of even deeper relevance to how revolutionary democrats build mass movements (and how they organize themselves) than it is to how governments should be organized in modern western societies. We didn’t achieve the wider extended democracy favourable to left politics that keza refers to in either the student movement or the Vietnam war protests by accepting majority rule – we were a very small minority and loudly denounced as undemocratic by our opponents – but we avoided isolation by tight leadership following a mass line.

On “The Dismissal” itself, that’s precisely what the ALP did not do. Looking through the wikipedia article, their “radical” reforms – hysterically opposed by the conservative opposition at the time – were pretty tame then and are conventional wisdom now. When Harold Holt was denouncing Whitlam for betraying the American alliance by proposing to recognize China, Kissinger was already in secret negotiations with Peking.

The ALP government tore itself apart with no tight leadership and made no serious effort to mobilize the masses for its reform program. Instead they absorbed much of what had previously been anti-government and anti-system activism into a new caste of do gooders funded by government – completely gutting the activist movement that had been developing against their more conservative predecessors.

The sordid constitutional maneuverings on all sides were pathetic – bribing an opposition senator with an ambassadorial post to Ireland to gain a vote for the government, state governments appointing replacement senators opposed to the party of deceased senators to gain a vote for the opposition, the governor-general not warning the Prime Minister of his intention to dismiss him etc etc.

But on the fundamental issue, Fraser was open and above board in declaring his intention to bring down the government by blocking supply and mobilized the people in opposition to government policies, while Whitlam made no attempt to mobilize the people in defence of his policies but instead tried to minimize the landslide against his government by demagogic attempts to deflect popular anger through making the decision to call an election the central issue.

In the USA the Executive government with a fixed term in office is often dominated by one party while Congress is dominated by another and conflicts between the two occasionally result in the Federal Government grinding to a halt due to supply being cut by Congress.

Australia (wisely or not) deliberately chose the Westminster system of the executive being responsible to Parliament instead of fixed term governments. Whitlam tried to “crash through” in a system where the ultimate result of the opposition refusing to back down could only be a crash (before or after supply ran out, depending on the Governor-General).

Instead of defending his program, Whitlam tried to deflect attention of ALP supporters from his leadership failure by demagoguery against “colonial relics”. This worked and there is still deep anger among ALP supporters about this “betrayal of democracy” by holding an election, while Whitlam remains a party hero.

Its complete and utter phoniness was highlighted by the “Republican” fiasco in which the ALP proposed to remove the colonial relic while retaining EXACTLY the same system that led to the Dismissal.

In reality the only “colonial relic” involved was the ALP which, for the first time in Australian history actually appealed to the British (Labor) government to directly intervene in Australian affairs when the Speaker of the House asked the Queen to act on the advice of her imperial British Ministers rather than her Australian Ministers to refuse to hold the election advised by her Australian Ministers. Naturally the British government and the Queen did no such thing (and in fairness the ALP could not have imagined that they would but was just engaged in more demagoguery in appealing to the Queen).

I was outside Australia during the whole period leading up to The Dismissal and so missed out on the developing atmosphere. But it was quite stunning on coming back to find so much latent support for the ALP among leftists who had previously been completely contemptuous of it – with genuine anger about how “our” party had been viciously deposed by such undemocratic means as holding a (CIA inspired, fascist, etc etc) election at which it had been undemocratically rejected by a landslide due to the ignorance of the unwashed masses about the importance of governmental stability!

This really was an early warning about the tendencies that have now shown themselves more fully in the current collapse of the left in the face of the pseudo-left. Perhaps that historical event, as well as the Red Eureka Movement discussion about international questions was a factor in why there seems to be greater clarity about the pseudos in Australia than elsewhere.
• Re: The Kerr “coup” – Another myth
Posted by kerrb at 2005-11-26 05:29 PM
arthur wrote:
I was outside Australia during the whole period leading up to The Dismissal and so missed out on the developing atmosphere. But it was quite stunning on coming back to find so much latent support for the ALP among leftists who had previously been completely contemptuous of it – with genuine anger about how “our” party had been viciously deposed by such undemocratic means as holding a (CIA inspired, fascist, etc etc) election at which it had been undemocratically rejected by a landslide due to the ignorance of the unwashed masses about the importance of governmental stability!
I think there was evidence of CIA displeasure at the Whitlam government to do with two issues of substance – the raid on ASIO by Murphy and nervousness that Whitlam might kick out US military bases (Pine Gap) in Australia. The ASIO raid perhaps arose from the practice of ASIO keeping dossiers on some ALP politicians who were active in the anti-Vietnam war movement. Murphy believed that ASIO was withholding information about Ustasha involvement in Australia. This had an echo later in SA when Don Dunstan sacked the police commisioner Salisbury, I think for similar sorts of reasons (dirt files on ALP politicians).

Significant reforms by the Whitlam government included the medicare health reform, increased access to University education by students from working class backgrounds and some ongling support students from disadvantaged backgrounds. These reforms have been incrementally whittled away by the current Liberal / National Coalition, illustrating the point that more than reform is needed.

I agree with tomb’s point that Whitlam did a dirty deal with the Indonesian government on East Timor.

In the final analysis the people did vote out Whitlam, so no argument there.

Two Australian labour governments have been dismissed (Whitlam and Jack Lang in NSW) in this way – intervention by the Queens representative – and no Conservative governments. This contributes to the sense of foul play.
_________________________

Bill Kerr
• Re: The Kerr “coup” – Another myth
Posted by byork at 2005-11-28 01:56 AM
I was a member of the CPA(ML) at the time, in 1975, and the party line was that it was indeed a semi-fascist coup. But this was not seen, as I recall it, only in terms of CIA involvement but in terms of superpower contention. Whitlam had recognized Soviet domination of the Baltic states and had been friendly to the Australia-Soviet Friendship Society. There was also some minor stuff happening with the Moscow Narodny bank in Australia which was also meant to clinch the argument. I don’t think Whitlam ever threatened the US bases in Australia but rather sought joint US-Australia control over Pine Gap. The CIA didn’t need to do much, as world events such as the oil crisis, plus the Labor government’s own incompetence as a manager of capitalism, brought it down. Whitlam lost the plot, even in his own social democratic terms, and turned to the fascist regime in Iraq to raise election funds which he could never raise from the Australian working people.

I look back on the semi-fascist coup analysis now with a sense of bewilderment. The writ by which Whitlam was sacked specified that a caretaker government be appointed and that an election be held. There’s nothing fascistic about that. Why then did people who had good leftwing credentials pursue that line?

I think part of the reason relates to the fact that the struggles over the big issues like Vietnam, censorship, White Australia Policy, and apartheid, in which the Left did win ground, had been more or less successful. The resultant absence of issues, or vacuum, led to frustration and recrimination within the Left and a desire, by some of us, including me, to try to keep something alive that was really gone.

The religious type of analysis that saw dialectics in terms of constant progress with people’s struggles intensifying and going from victory to victory with every new year’s issue of Vanguard led those who accepted it into a dead end. When people close their minds, as I did, to debate and exchange of ideas, and instead conglomerate within a very small sect (within a sect), then they can’t possibly understand revolutionary theory and they have lost touch with reality. (“All that is real is rational”). They become self-satisfied opponents of everyone else, praised and egged on by respected veterans.

People like me applied themselves to the ‘semi-fascist coup’ issue with similar dedication as we applied ourselves to supporting the Vietnamese liberation struggle, the struggle against apartheid, etc. Being militantly active was part of the religious ritual, evidence of our ‘superiority’ – ie, we were making real sacrifices on demonstrations – and a substitute for critical thinking. I look back on it with regret and embarrassment but also think it a big pity as there were some astute minds zombified by that sect. Very few of them today take a progressive line on things like Iraq and globalisation.

Yes, there were people saying good things and the republication of the ‘Red Eureka’ material on this site shows that its analysis was pretty good and stands up well to this day.

On Whitlam, it interests me that the reforms that are applauded and held up by his supporters generally do not include those that were most significant. Sometimes, the claims made for him are not even accurate. I have written a few times over the years to the ABC to get them to correct the oft-quoted claim that Whitlam withdrew Australian troops from Vietnam. This is a nonsense, as the ground troops were withdrawn by Gorton by Christmas 1971 – a tribute to the effectiveness of the Vietnamese struggle and that of its Australian supporters, and also indicative of Australian governmental subservience to US policy changes. There was only a small Australian military group left in South Vietnam in 1972). Even the claim that Whitlam abolished conscription is wrong – he merely suspended the National Service Act by regulation (which was a good thing, as it freed the few remaining imprisoned draft resisters). (It was rescinded many years later).

The recognition of China would have happened anyway – my old friend Joe Forace, late lamented, was Malta’s High Commisisoner to Australia and Ambassador to China and was the go-between for Liberal Prime Minister McMahon with Chou En Lai. The McMahon Government did much groundwork – Joe used to say that Whitlam merely signed on the line.

Similarly the White Australia Policy had been gradually ‘liberalised’ allowing for categories of Asians to settle here permanently. McMahon would also have done what Whitlam did in abolishing al racial criteria – maybe he would have been slower. Who knows?

Even the multicultural thing is not entirely a Whitlam era acheivement. Grants had been given to migrant/ethnic community organisations prior to Whitlam. Fraser did much more than Whitlam to institutionalise multiculturalism.

The most significant Whitlam reform – the one that his fans seem to want to ignore – was his government’s reversal of nearly 75 years of national protectionist policy. Whitlam was nearly roasted alive by the reactionary unions when he slashed tariffs by 25 percent. And his government was the first to tell the rural sector that they had to get real and could no longer expect to be propped up by government funding regardless of competitiveness. Remember the good ole days when margarine was controversial and the Country Party was warning everyone that it was produced by soap manufacturers?

So, in sum, I think Whitlam’s acheivements tend to be overblown and his real ones overlooked.

The Australian people voted against him, in an election that had to happen because of the nature of the writs creating the dismissal. Lots of former revoultionary leftists joined the ALP at the time, which probably made more sense than remaining in the CPA(ML).

Barry

Not all imperialist wars are created equal

Excellent article from Arabmaoists blog:

 

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The “anti-imperialist” left and Marxists in particular have made fools of themselves over Syria and the question of U.S. military action on two counts:

Failing to properly evaluate what is going on in Syria itself and clinging stubbornly to the radically false notion that all imperialist wars are created equal; that all of them are equally reactionary in intent and objective outcome, and concluding from this that the oppressed and exploited never have a dog in fights between their oppressors and exploiters.

This is not to imply that imperialist powers or their wars are by nature progressive, but just as it is possible for evil people to do good things, so too there are cases where working people do have an interest or a stake in the outcome of military conflicts between ruling classes and their states.

The most obvious example of this is World War Two, the world’s bloodiest and most devastating conflict to date. There were powerful imperialist powers and coalitions of their clients on both sides of the war and yet the consequences of one side’s victory could not be more dramatically different than the victory of the other’s.

Only a fool could assert that it made no difference to millions of people whether the Allied or Axis powers won the war and yet that is what one current within the international socialist movement, the Trotskyists, claimed at the time. James Cannon, a leader of the American Socialist Workers’ Party, put it thus after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor: “No imperialist regime can conduct a just war. We cannot support it for one moment.”

Instead of analyzing the war as it was, as a global struggle between two camps headed by imperialist powers, Trotskyists tried to pick and choose sides in the smaller conflicts within the overall war, specifically the USSR’s war against the Nazis and China’s war for national liberation against Japan, as if British imperialism headed by Churchill and American imperialism led by FDR were not sending Stalin war material and aiding bourgeois nationalist and even communist forces in the Far East and Yugoslavia as part of the broader effort to defeat the fascist Axis powers. This is doubly ironic given Trotskyism’s claim that it developed the “best” analysis of fascism as a uniquely reactionary force.

What does all this have to do with Syria?

Today’s anti-interventionists would have claimed back then that American military action could “only make things worse” for people in Europe and Asia, would have voted in Congress or in Parliament against taking military action against the Axis, and blocked weapons and aid from reaching Stalin, Hồ Chí Minh, and Tito (all of whom the Trotskyists claimed they supported; starving forces you support of weapons is probably one of the more bizarre implications of their political method).

The world was much better off without this brand of “leftism” back then and the Syrians would be much better off without it now.