Reflections on my trip to China in 1971, and the eventual victory of the ‘capitalist roaders’

China 1971

An old comrade and friend recently wrote some of his reflections on his trip to China in 1978. This prompted me to write about my own time there, a month in May 1971. I was one of 19 Australians on a delegation organized by the Australia-China Friendship Society. Our aim was to promote the campaign for the establishment of diplomatic relations with China. Nearly all of us were sympathetic to the Chinese revolution, and a core was Maoists. The tour leader was the communist leader of Melbourne’s wharfies, Ted Bull. He often called in Jim Bacon and I for discussions on the trip, which makes me think we were his ‘deputies’.

My friend’s account of China in 1978, when he went there, makes me realize how quickly things can change. I must say that I disagree with his assessment of Deng Xiaoping as a ‘great man’. I take the opposite view, and shall explain why in relation to the features in China that attracted and inspired me back then, in 1971.

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My memories of the 1971 trip remain strong for a number of reasons. Firstly, during the 1970s, I gave talks and showed my slides about the trip on more than a hundred occasions. I only had a cheap ‘plastic’ camera but took 400 photographic slides. Incidentally, I was never stopped from taking photos over there.

In 1971, there was great interest in ‘Red China’ in Australia and it was sensational for any Australian to have ventured beyond ‘the Bamboo Curtain’. I remember a neighbor in my street in Brunswick asking, with great concern, as to whether I was worried that they might not let me out. I explained to the neighbor that China wanted a more open relationship with the world and that it was the Australian government that had placed tight restrictions on ordinary people travelling there.

During the 1980s and 1990s, I continued to show my slides but much less frequently. I last showed them about five years ago when some Chinese friends of a friend were visiting Australia and my friend told me the visitors would love to see slides of their homeland from way back in 1971. Their reactions to my commentary and slides suggested that ‘the past (really) is a foreign country – they do things differently there’. The visitors were very loyal to the current philosophy and policies of the Chinese Communist Party and had a kind of nostalgic attachment to the Mao period.

A few years prior to that I had shown the slides to one of the mums at the local school. My wife had told her that I had been to China and met Zhou Enlai. This young mum, whose parents were Chinese and had lived through the Cultural Revolution, was thrilled to meet me and to see the slides. She was gushing with enthusiasm to meet someone who had actually shaken the hand of the late Premier. Born years after Zhou’s death, she none the less gushed: “We Chinese LOVE Premier Zhou!”

My memories were also kept alive by an oral history project I recorded for the National Library in 2013 in which I interviewed several of those who were on the 1971 trip. Their memories and reflections, from the perspective of ‘now’, were fascinating and revived more of my own recollections. Later, I persuaded the Library to allow me to record the memories of members of the Australian table tennis team – the ‘ping-pong diplomats’ – who we met in Beijing in May 1971. It was another fascinating project. One of the players described to me the difference in the attitude of the everyday people in the eastern bloc, where he had also competed in table tennis, and those in China. The vibe of enthusiasm in China was a marked contrast, he told me, to the drabness and crushing sense of alienation in East Germany and other Soviet bloc countries.

I could relate to what he said because, wherever we went in China, the vibe in the streets was one of friendliness, happiness, engagement and curiosity. Perhaps all this was staged, but there were times when it couldn’t have been – such as when Jim Bacon and I told our guides in Shanghai that we wanted to go shopping and that we were confident we could manage on our own without a guide or interpreter. It is a humorous but insightful anecdote that I always tell with my slide show (but too long and complicated to take up space here). We were more or less mobbed by the locals, many of who sported Mao badges and all of whom seemed very happy people. I can imagine their vibe was not terribly different to that in other revolutionary societies, including the unleashing of enthusiasm during and immediately after the English civil war and the period in America when the British were defeated and Washington elected unanimously by the Congress as the first President.

Anyway all this has kept the memories alive for me.

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Like my old friend, I was keen to see socialism in action. I had read a fair bit of theory and there were detailed accounts by westerners like the American communist William Hinton who had spent long periods living there among the peasants and workers, poet Rewi Alley and novelist Han Suyin, and scholarly works by Joan Robinson, professor of economics at Cambridge University. It was Robinson’s book on the cultural revolution, published in 1968, that influenced me in terms of the Maoist view of the relationship between the economic base of a society and its superstructure. The deterministic brand of Marxism that saw the relationship as a one-way street was rejected by Mao and developed into a nuanced understanding that the superstructure, the culture, customs, and habits, can impact on the base of a society with such power as to turn it into its opposite (ie, under socialism, restoring capitalist social relations of production).

The source of the regressive impact was not ‘socialist’ but feudalist. In terms of ‘custom’ etc that reflects and in turn pushes the ongoing development of socialism, we are talking of a lengthy process (which is why Mao spoke of the need for many cultural revolutions). Feudalism was collectivist because there was no other choice: the individual, rights, and expectations being severely constrained. And it was this cultural drag that was able to present aspects of itself as ‘socialist’. The communists were waging a struggle on two fronts – against feudal ideas and practices (the latter of these especially because they can present themselves as ideologically free zones) and the emerging bourgeois ones that were also able to present themselves as revolutionary (and to the degree they were anti-feudal, they were).

Thus, it made sense to wage ‘cultural revolution’ against those in the communist party who sought to perpetuate bourgeois values of selfishness over serving the people, competitiveness over cooperation, and personal acquisition of great wealth, as a virtue. The much-promoted slogan for the socialist ethic at the time was ‘Serve the people’.

I could readily relate to this distinctively Maoist outlook for two main reasons: I was very much the “Arts” type and into subjectivity. I was easily moved by music, film and poetry. I loved expressing myself through writing and art and music. Mao emphasized human agency in the materialist dialectic. Marx had dealt with the power of subjectivity in the interaction between base and superstructure in footnotes – Mao pushed it centre-stage at a time when socialism was being built in China. Secondly, I felt part of a youth rebellion in the late 1960s. It took many forms, from rock music to opposition to censorship and rejection of notions of obedience. I grew my hair long. One day, walking along my street in Brunswick, a bloke in a Holden drove by, slowed down, and yelled out, “Get a haircut, ya poofta!” From that day on, I pledged to myself I’d be a ‘long hair’. (Even now, when Nature has placed a prohibition on me doing so, I at least like to grow a pony-tail). This ‘youth revolt’ was global and, as in China, we were challenging the old assumptions and the old ways. So, I went to China in 1971 very keen to see this playing out.

William Hinton’s book, ‘Fanshen’, based on his life with a commune, was a very detailed description of daily routines under conditions of land redistribution and ‘New Democracy’, with power placed in the hands of the people through revolutionary committees – similar to Russia’s earlier soviets – in which workers and peasants could directly elect their managers and recall them at any time by popular vote. These committees elected representatives to higher bodies and, in turn, they elected representatives still higher up. But the beauty of the revolutionary committee system, to me, was that the workers and peasants had a real say in the economic direction of their local community and the bigger society. It was the exact opposite power structure to that in Australia and other capitalist societies where, at best, you might have a corporation appointing a union boss to a board of management.

So, I was keen to see how these revolutionary committees worked.

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I won’t go into detail here – I could write much more about all this – but I’ll list five principal features of China’s revolutionary life that inspired me and that I experienced during May 1971.

  1. The revolutionary committees. We met with cadres from two such committees (from memory) and one that I remember clearly (again, thanks to the slide showings) was based in a rolling stock and locomotive factory. The workers had produced surplus stock and the revolutionary committee convened a mass meeting to decide what the workers wanted to do with the surplus. We were told they decided to donate it to the government of Tanzania, where a railway was being built. The socialist ethic of ‘serving the people’ was not nationalistic but based on international solidarity. I returned to Melbourne and to La Trobe University with an almost evangelical zeal to convey what I knew about the revolutionary committees. One of our student demands was for ‘student power’. We even had to struggle for a student representative on the governing body of the university – indeed, in 1969, I received my first penalty for political protest on the campus when I was ‘severely reprimanded’ for being part of a deputation that ‘invaded’ the Council chambers during a Council meeting to demand student representation. We also wanted students to have the right to observe Council meetings.

 

  1. Big Character Posters. These were, in a sense, the Internet of the day. While the Cultural Revolution was dying down in 1971, with Mao concerned about the ultra-leftists and violence between the various ‘true Maoist’ factions, the Big Character posters were apparent in schools and streets. These were forms of grass-roots expression, usually expressing local grievances and/or criticizing capitalist-roaders within the communist party. The posters were something that anyone could do – hence my analogy with the Internet.

 

  1. Who needs a Navy? I’ll never forget meeting with party cadres and discussing the military threats to China from the Soviet social-imperialists (the Ussuri River border being a dangerous hot spot where fighting had broken out in 1969) and from the US imperialists in Indo-China and the Pacific. We were told that China’s military strategy was entirely defensive and based on the Peoples Liberation Army and civil defense. My ears pricked up when mention was made of a coastal naval defense force. I asked, “Why doesn’t China have a conventional Navy – why just a small coastal guard?” The reply, which I’ll never forget, was that “China does not need a Navy because we have no intention of expanding our interests beyond China. We shall never become imperialist! Only imperialists need a large powerful Navy!”

 

  1. Social ownership of property and poverty/progress. When Marx spoke of ‘private property’ he meant the means of production, not one’s spectacles or shoes. China’s communes were based on collective ownership of land once owned by individuals and formerly run in pursuit of maximizing the profit to the landlords. Socialism is social ownership of means of production. When that is lost, then you no longer have socialism. The grass-roots’ enthusiasm that I saw in China, and that people like William Hinton, Han Suyin and Rewi Alley wrote about based on experience living there, confirmed to me that society does not need greed or the pursuit of individual profit as a motivator for innovation. I saw things that were indicators of progress, especially in housing and, at the same time, I also saw a level of poverty that did not exist anywhere in Australia’s regions and cities. This was not disillusioning, though, because I knew, from works like Edgar Snow’s ‘Red Star over China’, what conditions had been like for the peasants pre-1949, when they had to eat bark off trees or hand over their children to landlords in lieu of rent. We met elderly folk who recalled the bad old days, usually with tears, and who described how their personal lives had changed for the better. Yes, they could have been party stooges, reciting by rote what the party bosses were forcing them to say. If that were the case, then China had some truly magnificent actors, individuals worthy of Academy awards. They seemed very genuine to me.

 

On the topic of progress, I’ll relate an episode when we visited a waterfront. With the assistance of an interpreter, Ted Bull was invited to speak to the Chinese waterside workers. Ted began by telling them that conditions on the wharves in Melbourne were superior to what he had seen in China. I was rather surprised by his frankness. He explained that this had been achieved by struggle, hard struggle, over many decades. He said that they had to struggle because the waterside workers were more or less ‘owned’ for the period of their labour by the ship owners and other capitalists. He told the Chinese workers that the big difference in China was that they had much greater ‘ownership’ of themselves as a class and could thus progress through struggle of a different kind, such as the struggle to develop better ways of improving safety on the job and better ways of innovating and producing stuff. He hardly needed to point out that socialist China had begun from a far less developed starting-point.

 

5    Politics in command – It is right to rebel!  In 1971, there were still signs of revolutionary enthusiasm such as big character posters and anti-imperialist and anti-racism billboards. Whenever we met with cadres, they were intensely political – politics was in command. The politics was based on dialectical understanding – the cadres often spoke about the on-going struggle between the two lines within the communist party. The notion of rebellion as a positive value struck me – but I may have been projecting my own values onto the situation. One would have to live there for many years to grasp anything like that – as William Hinton did. In 1971 I was living and breathing politics as an activist at La Trobe University, and had been since 1968/69. A highly politicized society strikes me as an engaged one: a participatory democracy. Apathy and cynicism are tantamount to surrender. Our struggles at La Trobe had no room for either.

 

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Those five features, whether accurate or not, and whether a product of idealised rose-coloured glasses or not, struck me as essentials of socialism, of the dictatorship of the proletariat (ie, the replacement of the rule by the 0.1% with the rule of the 99.9%); things that would really take off with even greater success under conditions of advanced industrial capitalism. There was occasionally theoretical discussion in Melbourne about whether it was possible to ‘jump’ mature capitalist development from a semi-feudal society into socialism. At the time, I believed it was possible.

 

But each of those five features was gradually reversed following the coup – ‘regime change’ – after Mao’s death in 1976. And this leads me to why I have no time at all for Deng Xiaoping, the architect of ‘capitalism with Chinese characteristics’.

 

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At the time of the coup in China, I merely followed the party line, the CPA(ML) line. I’d been like that for too many years – an obedient follower rather than a critical reflective thinker, researcher and debater. That was the negative of my experience for most of the 1970s. Dogmatism, group think, formula-thinking, failure to investigate and think for myself… and worst of all: obedience. I may have still called myself a ‘Maoist’ but I was far from being one. Of course, to rebel within the CPA(ML) was not easy and had bad personal consequences, especially if you were dependent on a social life based around others who also tended to have become dogmatic and obedient. (I could write a book about this period).

 

To the extent that I did think about it in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I regarded the rise of Deng as a positive move; something along the lines of Lenin’s New Economic Policy and the beginning of a modernization process (something Mao had wanted and which was clearly needed) rather than a regime change ushering in a completely different path. I would have agreed with the idea that Deng was a ‘great man’. The ‘Gang of Four’, I speculated (in the absence of any investigation or evidence), were ultra-leftists who put sloganeering above economic development. Closer to home, we had the Red Eureka Movement, who supported the Gang of Four – and (nearly) everyone in the party knew they were ‘no good’ and heaven help you if you suggested, even mildly, that they might have had a few good points. And, further, their ‘leader’, Albert Langer, was a CIA agent –a definite fact according to Duncan Clarke and other veterans. Of course, it was nonsense (and I’m ashamed to say I went along with such nonsense, for too long).

 

My doubts about Deng were slow to develop and I was able to question what had happened more freely after I resigned from the party late in 1980 or early 1981. I opened my mind to different possibilities about him and followed events in China more closely. And listened to the range of opinions and analyses on offer.

 

Something that struck me as strange was that the western media, almost unanimously, praised Deng and admired him. This usually doesn’t happen to genuine communists while they are alive. They are usually vilified and demonized by the capitalist press. But, no, Deng was almost heroic to some pro-capitalist western outlets: he was ‘opening up’ China’s economy by facilitating a market aspect. Well, I figured, maybe that is needed. Let’s see.

 

Then, in the early 1980s, I learned that the revolutionary committees had been disbanded in 1978 – not by the workers and peasants but from above. The revolutionary committees had formed the backbone of China’s New Democracy for more than a decade. No wonder the capitalist media was glowing in their admiration for Deng. In 1982, I also read about how the Chinese regime had banned the Big Character posters. This was done as part of the revision of the Constitution no less. Apparently, genuine rebellious types in China were using the posters to challenge the corruption that grew with the new market direction. Defiantly, other rebellious types revived them seven years later and, despite being unlawful, they became ubiquitous during the June Fourth protests in 1989.

 

It seemed to me that China under Deng’s influence might be going down the capitalist road as had happened in the Soviet Union but it didn’t preoccupy me as an issue. I was now living and studying in Sydney, enjoying life more, and this issue only arose for me through my reading of ‘Vanguard’ and newsletters of the Red Eureka Movement and occasional contact with former and current party members who wanted to talk about it.

 

I was easily influenced by others during the 1980s but I had at least started thinking again. I suppose ‘confused’ would be the best word to describe myself at that time. I’d read damning stuff about ‘the real Mao’ and been influenced by that, and then a counterpoint would come along and I’d feel okay about him again. The western media rightly portrayed Deng in contradistinction to Mao. They got that right. Either way, I still adhered to the values embodied in those five features of China in 1971 that impressed me so much. I still believed that socialism could work and offered something better, more innovative and productive, less alienating, more democratic and more conducive to the development of the full human being, than capitalism.

 

Then came another clanger for Deng in my eyes. “To get rich is glorious”. Really? Glorious? What happened to the socialist ethic: Serve the people? In 1986 in a Sixty Minutes interview, Deng did not deny saying that but tried to justify it by claiming he meant “For society to get rich is glorious”. In the context of the widening of the market economy under the reforms he supported, it was entirely plausible that what he meant was individuals getting rich was glorious. This is certainly supported by his other claim: “Let some people get rich first”.

 

And what was happening to the communist slogan, ‘Keep politics in command’? According to Deng, it was a case of “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white so long as it catches mice”.

SAY WHAT??!!

 

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During the 1980s, I had friends who visited China. Gone were the days of the early 1970s when the tourist industry was barely developed over there (which actually meant a greater degree of freedom for tourists, as I found in 1971). In the 1980s, the tourist industry was becoming large and sophisticated, and more controlled. Anecdotal evidence from my friends indicated that there had been a profound cultural change in China, reflecting the development of market capitalism. My friends would complain about how on every street corner in Beijing or Nanjing or wherever, someone was trying to sell you something. Everyone, they said, seemed to be out to make a fast buck. “To get rich is glorious”!

 

Still, around the mid-1980s, I still wouldn’t have felt confident to argue with anyone about all this. But then, in 1989, something happened to clinch it all: a ghastly massacre of young students and workers who had occupied Tiananmen Square to protest against government corruption. In rolled the tanks. And even the corpses were crushed.

 

A perennial question for any leftist confronted me: whose side was I on? Against the insistence of a handful of party loyalists (who struck me as increasingly eccentric) that it was all a foreign plot, I sided with the rebels, the protestors, the courageous ones, the ones without the tanks, the ‘long hairs’. And it wasn’t only because some sang ‘The Internationale’. It was because their cause was just, and their suppression despicable and completely unjust. (The Waterdale Road demonstrations from La Trobe University in 1970, which were violently attacked by police who made two arrests at gunpoint, were a pleasant afternoon tea party by comparison).

 

In my eyes, Deng – who was chairman of the central military commission in 1989 and had argued for swift military intervention – was clearly a social-fascist. Mao would have described him as such.

 

Marxist William Hinton’s book, ‘The Great Reversal: the privatization of China, 1978-1989’ provides an abundance of evidence and elaboration for all the above. He lived and worked there for many years, including during the 1980s.

 

On the Cultural Revolution, I recommend Mobo Gao’s ‘The battle for China’s past’ and Dongping Han’s ‘The unknown Cultural Revolution: life and change in a Chinese village’ for evidence-based alternatives to the mainstream understanding promoted through the media and universities.

 

 

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The Prague Spring 1968 – it is right to rebel!

Czech 1968

“Discarding all its fig-leaves, its so-called ‘Marxism-Leninism’, ‘internationalism’, etc., the Soviet revisionist leading clique has brazenly resorted to direct armed aggression and intervention and is trying to create puppets with the help of guns. It is exactly what Hitler did in the past in his aggression against Czechoslovakia and the U.S. imperialism of today is doing in its aggression against Vietnam. The Soviet revisionist clique of renegades has long since degenerated into a gang of social-imperialists and social-fascists”.                                            – Premier Zhou En Lai, August 1968

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Fifty years ago this month a dramatic people’s uprising in Czechoslovakia took place., in support of democratic reforms. It was made all the more dramatic because of the attempt by the Soviet Union’s ‘Red Army’ to suppress the pro-democracy movement.

Estimates vary but up to 500,000 Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia to thwart the efforts by the Czech Communist Party government, led by Alexander Dubcek, to introduce reforms such as abolition of censorship and multi-party competitive elections.

The uprising by the Czech people was part of the great global disruption that happened in the landmark year, 1968.

Those of us on the left in Australia, who were building a movement in solidarity with the Vietnamese against US and allied aggression, supported the Czech rebellion. In the Czech workers and students, we saw the struggles of peoples everywhere fighting for freedom from imperialist aggression – and we saw ourselves, our own struggle for greater freedom.

Of all the governments around the world, none was as vehement as the Chinese Communist Party in its condemnation of the invasion. The Chinese government was highly critical of Dubcek’s revisionism too, in part because it did not go far enough in urging and organizing people’s struggle against the invaders.

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At the time, as a 17 year old, I found the invasion confusing, initially. There was appeal in the conspiratorial line spread by pro-Soviet revisionists that it was all a CIA plot to destabilize socialism. Conspiracy theories are alluring in that way: if something happens that you cannot make sense of, the conspiracy theory is always there to make sense of it for you. The problem is that it is usually wrong as it is plucked out of thin air.

Eventually, when I went to university, I met an impressive Marxist-Leninist named Dave Muller who I looked up to enormously. He patiently explained to me how the Soviet Union had abandoned socialism long ago and was now basically state capitalist and social-imperialist. I looked further into this – did some reading and arguing – and was even able to persuade my father that the Soviet Union had ‘gone bad’.

The bottom line for me at that time, as someone not well versed in theory, was that people were rising up – as we were, as the Vietnamese were, as the South Africans were, as the black Americans were – against unjust regimes and seeking something better. Czechoslovakia pushed a few of us already on the left in the Maoist direction. Including me.

Expressing the Chinese party line, Premier Zhou En Lai’s speech, made in August 1968, is worth reading in full. It is worth noting too how today’s pseudo-left takes the opposite view to the one we took back then on the elementary question of international solidarity and support for people’s struggle against unjust and oppressive regimes. The Arab Spring was seen by the pseudo-left as a CIA plot, as the Czech uprising was.

The speech in full:

“A few days ago, the Soviet revisionist leading clique and its followers brazenly dispatched massive armed forces to launch a surprise attack on Czechoslvakia and swiftly occupied it, with the Czechoslovak revisionist leading clique openly calling on the people not to resist, thus perpetrating towering crimes against the Czechoslovak people.

“This is the most barefaced and most typical specimen of fascist power politics played by the Soviet revisionist clique of renegades and scabs against its so-called allies. It marks the total bankruptcy of Soviet modern revisionism.

“The Chinese Government and people strongly condemn the Soviet revisionist leading clique and its followers for their crime of aggression- the armed occupation of Czechoslovakia- and firmly support the Czechoslovak people in their heroic struggle of resistance to Soviet military occupation.

“Over a period of time, modern revisionism with the Soviet revisionist leading clique as its center has been beset with internal contradictions and riddled with crises. The aim of the Soviet revisionist leading clique in brazenly invading and occupying Czechoslovakia is to prevent the Czechoslovak revisionist leading clique from directly hiring itself out to the Western countries headed by U.S. imperialism and to prevent this state of affairs from giving rise to uncontrollable chain reactions. This is an inevitable result of the great-power chauvinism and national egoism practised by the Soviet revisionist clique, and of the Khrushchev revisionism the Soviet revisionist clique of renegades has practised over the years.

“Discarding all its fig-leaves, its so-called ‘Marxism-Leninism’, ‘internationalism’, etc., the Soviet revisionist leading clique has brazenly resorted to direct armed aggression and intervention and is trying to create puppets with the help of guns. It is exactly what Hitler did in the past in his aggression against Czechoslovakia and the U.S. imperialism of today is doing in its aggression against Vietnam. The Soviet revisionist clique of renegades has long since degenerated into a gang of social-imperialists and social-fascists.

“The Soviet revisionist leading clique has all along pursued the counter revolutionary policy of U.S.-Soviet collaboration for world domination. Since the Glassboro talks, not to mention anything earlier, U.S. imperialism and Soviet revisionism have struck a series of dirty deals on such important questions as Vietnam, the Middle East and the prevention of nuclear proliferation. The present Czechoslovak incident is no exception. It is a result of the sharpening contradictions in the scramble for and division of spheres of influence by U.S. imperialism and Soviet revisionism in Eastern Europe; it is, moreover, a result of the U.S.-Soviet collusion in vain attempt to redivide the world. The aggression by Soviet revisionism was carried out with the tacit understanding of U.S. imperialism. Since U.S. imperialism has acquiesced in the invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia by Soviet revisionism, how is it possible for Soviet revisionism to oppose the forcible occupation of south Vietnam by U.S. imperialism? In fact, Soviet revisionism has long become the No. 1 accomplice of U.S. imperilaim in its aggression against Vietnam and the rest of the world. That a big nation should have so wilfully trampled a small nation underfoot serves as a most profound lesson for those harbouring illusions about U.S. imperialism and Soviet revisionism.

“The armed aggression by Soviet revisionism has brought calamity to the Czechoslovak people, but it has also educated them, enabling them to realize gradually that revisionism is the root cause of this calamity. This is likewise a very good lesson for the people of the Soviet Union, the other East European countries and the rest of the world.”

 

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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.

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  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

Russia back on the front line

Some “quick off the cuff notes” by Arthur Dent in response to The Australian’s Tom Switzer who wrote an article on 30 September titled ‘Russia back on the front line’. The notes were originally published at Strange Times. I’m running Arthur’s notes first, followed by Tom Switzer’s article.

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1. Vivid demonstration that realists live in a parallel universe with a different “reality”. Switzer is actually quite clear that he wants to go back to the old US policy of backing the autocracies and tyrants against their people to maintain the region as a backward swamp (originally for cheap oil and anti-communism then contention with Soviet imperialism and “security” – especally Israeli security in occupying more and more territory and then sheer inertia and blind stupidity of an entire generation of the foreign policy establishment who had devoted their careers to it and persisted with it long after the collapse of the Soviet empire, the end of cheap oil and the failure of the war for Greater Israel having made Israel a strategic albatross hanging around the US neck rather than a US base in the region (the only regional power that could not join the coalition liberating Kuwait from Baathist Iraq and who had to be told their planes would be shot down if they pretended to be part of it by sending any into coalition airspace).

2. In Switzer’s alternate universe, the problem in the Ukraine is “.. the widespread Western failure to recognise an old truth of geopolitics: that a great power fights tooth and nail to protect vital security interests in its near abroad”.

In our universe there is no such Western failure. No Western government is even allowing the Ukrainian government to buy weapons to defend itself against the Russian bullying because they understand with total clarity that they have no power to confront Russian bullying behaviour in that part of the world. The facts Switzer recites about that from lessons about geopolitics drummed into him more than half a century ago are totally obvious to every policy maker and ignored only by the usual shouters.

3. In Switzer’s alternative universe “Putin fears that if Bashar al­Assad’s regime falls, Russia’s presence in western Syria and its strategic military bases on the Mediterranean will be gone.” and “Russia’s navy and advanced anti­aircraft missile systems are based along the Mediterranean. It’s likely to deploy ground troops to the eastern coast.”

In fact Russia’s navy in the Meditarranean is about the size of the US army in the Ukraine. If the Russians were imbeciles attempting what Switzer imagines they are going to do in Syria and Obama was indeed as inept and vacillating as he has successfully convinced pretty well everybody he has always been then the British, French and Turks would have both vital national interests in their near abroad and the capability to act that would compel them to stop the nonsense immediately without waiting a day longer for Obama to stop dithering.

By now Turkey would have closed the Dardanelles (not of course as a hostile act towards that deeply respected partner and Mediterranean Great Power, the Tsar of all the Russias, but simply because they were too busy dealing with the problem of two million refugees having been driven out of Syria by the Assad regime to remember to keep it open).

A few hours sailing time later, the British would have announced that their are command mines laid at Gibraltar that are currently turned on but will be turned off at the approach of any ship that is known not to be assisting anyone forcing millions of Syrians to flee Syria to Europe. Naturally this too would not be a hostile act against anybody but merely a precaution against the possible arrival of the Daesh navy, just as the Russian air to air and surface to air missiles at Latakia are to protect them from the Daesh air force. Naturally the ships of a Meditarranean Great Power like Russia would not be subject to compulsory inspection and the mines would be respecfully turned off as they went about their entirely legitmate business and if any ships of any nation were accidentally sunk by a mine that had failed to remain turned off then Her Majesty’s Government would of course pay full compensation as required by international law etc etc.

All available British and French forces would move as rapidly as possible to the British sovereign base in Cyprus not as a hostile act against anybody but merely as friendly observers of the joint naval exercises that had been announced nearby by the navies of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires. After those exercises were completed they would be happy to assist their partners the Russians in returning to Vladivostok via the Suez canal without any danger of becoming subject to inspection by any Arab Gulf states wanting to check whether they were helping any notorious Syrian war criminals to escape as Britain and France are rather in favour of any assistance their Russian partners might be willing to give to Syrian war criminals leaving Damascus right now and don’t really care where they end up as long as they don’t stay in Syria.

4. In Switzer’s alternate universe Putin “has sent tanks, warships, fighter jets and troops to bolster the regime, which has faced a troop shortage and loss of towns as it seeks to maintain Alawite rule over an overwhelming Sunni majority”. Pretty well everbody agrees with Switzer about that, perhaps because those who know better have no reason not to want everybody to think that at the moment.

For my part I’ll just end by saying that Switzer and others should remember what Kissinger said the word would go out about another Great Power:

“To be an enemy of America can be dangerous, but to be a friend is fatal”

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Tom Switzer’s piece from The Australian (30 September 2015):

Since Russia’s incursion into Ukraine 18 months ago, the West has indulged in the rhetoric of moral indignation, punished Moscow with economic sanctions and treated Vladimir Putin as a pariah in world affairs. “Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters,” President
Barack Obama declared in January. “That’s how America leads — not with bluster but with persistent, steady resolve.”

Somebody forgot to tell the Russian President. Putin’s address to the UN General Assembly this week, following his lightning military deployment to Syria, marks Russia’s resurgence on the global stage. The Russians, far from being marginalised in international relations, are playing a weak hand rather skilfully and are being allowed to do so because of considerable ineptitude and vacillation on the part of the Obama administration.

The upshot is that Washington will have to take the Kremlin far more seriously in the future. This is not just because Putin’s support for the embattled Assad regime will help degrade and destroy Islamic State jihadists in a four ­year civil war that has claimed nearly 250,000 lives and displaced more than nine million people. Rather, Russia’s intervention in Syria shows how rational Moscow’s concerns over Western policy in the Middle East are, and that the Obama administration had better start treating it like the great power it still is.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Moscow voluntarily jettisoned the Warsaw Pact and acquiesced in the expansion of NATO and the EU on to the frontiers of the former Soviet Union. But the limits of Russia’s post ­Cold War retreat have been evident since the Western ­backed coup against a pro-Russian ally in Kiev in February last year. Putin has played hardball to protect what Russia has deemed as its sphere of influence in the Baltics long before Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin appeared on the scene. And in the Middle East it is determined to protect what it perceives as its vital interests.

Putin fears that if Bashar al­Assad’s regime falls, Russia’s presence in western Syria and its strategic military bases on the Mediterranean will be gone. That is why he has sent tanks, warships, fighter jets and troops to bolster the regime, which has faced a troop shortage and loss of towns as it seeks to maintain Alawite rule over an overwhelming Sunni majority.

And by reaching an understanding with Syria as well as Iraq and Iran to share intelligence about Islamic State, Putin is positioning Russia again as a key player in the Middle East, and one that is
more willing than the West to defeat Sunni jihadists. In the process, he has exposed the shortcomings of the White House’s policy towards Syria.

Until recently, the prevailing wisdom held that the Assad regime — the nemesis of Sunni militants was on the verge of collapse, an outcome that Washington, London and Canberra had enthusiastically encouraged for much of the past four years. And although Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop now recognise that Assad must be part of any negotiated political
solution, the Obama administration continues to insist that any resolution of the conflict must lead to the exit of the dictator.

US Secretary of State John Kerry warns Russia’s continued support for Assad “risks exacerbating and extending the conflict” and will undermine “our shared goal of fighting extremism”. British Chancellor George Osborne goes so far as to say the West’s aim should to be to defeat both Assad and Islamic State. But given Washington’s futile attempts to destroy the Sunni jihadist network
during the past year, most seasoned observers of the Syrian crisis are entitled to think that such strategies are manifest madness.

The consequences of removing Assad would be dire. The regime would collapse and its Alawite army would crumble. Sunni jihadists such as Islamic State and al­Qa’ida’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al­Nusra, also known as al­Nusra Front, would exploit the security vacuum and dominate all of Syria. The ethnic minorities — the Alawites, Shi’ites and Syrian Christians — would be massacred. And there would be the flight of millions more refugees into Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

If we are to avoid these horrific outcomes, Russia will have to play a central and positive role. It has had significant influence in Damascus during the past half century; indeed, many Syrian
military officers have received training in Moscow. Russia’s navy and advanced anti­aircraft missile systems are based along the Mediterranean. It’s likely to deploy ground troops to the eastern coast. And Moscow has recognised that notwithstanding Assad’s brutal conduct, his regime is fighting the jihadists that Western leaders repeatedly say pose a grave and present danger to the world.

Obama says the US would work with any nation to end the fighting in Syria. But to engage Russia, the West needs to change its policy approach substantially. Alas, the prevailing Russophobia in
Washington and Brussels remains a serious obstacle in the path of reaching accommodation with Moscow.

The problem in Ukraine is not related to a revival of the Soviet empire, as some hyperventilating politicians and pundits argue. The problem is the widespread Western failure to recognise an old
truth of geopolitics: that a great power fights tooth and nail to protect vital security interests in its near abroad. Take Ukraine: it is a conduit for Russian exports to Europe and covers a huge terrain
that the French and Germans crossed to attack Russia in the 19th and 20th centuries. Most Crimeans are glad to be part of the country they called home from Catherine’s rule to that of Nikita Khrushchev.

From Moscow’s standpoint, the expansion of NATO and the EU into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, taken together with efforts to promote democracy, is akin to Moscow expanding military alliances into Central America. Some may respond by saying that Ukraine, however ethnically and politically divided it remains, has every right to join the West. But did communist Cuba have a right to seek political and military ties with the Soviet Union in 1962? Not from Washington’s perspective. Does Taiwan have a right to seek nationhood? Not from Beijing’s perspective.

This is a shame, but it is the way the world works, and always has. Not only does Putin know it, he calculates that a weak, inept and cautious Obama administration won’t push the issue despite the dire threats and warnings from congress and the Pentagon.

And so it was inevitable that the Russians would push back in the Baltics, first to secure the Crimean peninsula, the traditional home of the Russian Black Sea fleet (which Russian intelligence feared would become a NATO base), then to destabilise Ukraine with the aim of persuading Kiev’s anti ­Russian regime to protect the minority rights of ethnic Russians and maintain its status as a buffer state.

As for Syria, the problem here is not the Russians — or even Iran’s Shia crescent of Damascus, Baghdad, Hezbollah and the Yemeni rebels. After all, they’re committed to fighting Sunni jihadists. The problem is that US ­British aligned Sunni states — Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arabs — have aided and abetted the Sunni rebellion that has morphed into Sunni jihadism.

Yet these reactionary regimes still have the temerity to call for Assad’s ouster. Following regime change, we’re told, a US­ led coalition of Arabs and Turks can create a peaceful and prosperous Syria.

Leave aside the fact Assad’s support stems not just from Moscow and Tehran but also from Syria’s military, political and business elites, including many urban Sunnis. Assad is a brutal tyrant. He
has used chemical weapons against his own people. And he has launched relentless barrel bombs in rebel areas. But he is more popular than ever in the one ­third of Syria his regime still controls
(which happens to be the major cities and the coastland). That is largely because many know his demise would lead to widespread ethnic cleansing.

The idea that Assad’s fall would lead to something approaching a peaceful transition of power is as delusional as the neo­conservative views about Iraq and Libya in 2003 and 2011 respectively. The
downfall of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, it was onfidently asserted, would lead to viable democratic states. If anything, both post­Saddam Iraq and post­Gaddafi Libya are failed
states that have attracted terrorists like flies to a dying animal.

As in the case of Iraq, Syria is an artificial state and an ethnically divided society created out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. In both nations the invasion and civil war, respectively, have unleashed centrifugal forces that are eroding political structures and borders that have prevailed since the end of World War I.

In Iraq, the 2003 invasion ended the nation’s sectarian imbalance between the minority Sunni and majority Shia communities. Ever since, the Shia have been more interested in seeking revenge against their former Sunni tormentors than in building a nation. The result: a Sunni insurgency that has morphed into a plethora of jihadist groups, including Islamic State.

In Syria, the Arab Spring in 2011 encouraged the Sunni majority to challenge and destroy the minority Alawite regime. The result: centrifugal forces that threaten the viability of Syria as we have known it for nearly a century.

As unfashionable as it is to acknowledge, partition is the likely outcome of the civil war. According to Joshua Landis, a veteran Syria observer and director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, many Syrians, and Alawites in particular, privately acknowledge that the prospect of outright military victory against the Sunni militants is highly unlikely and that it would be impossible to coexist with Sunni fanatics.

For Syria, partition would most likely mean an Alawite Shia state in the regime’s western heartland and a Sunni state to the southeast. Notwithstanding statements to the contrary, this is the emerging reality on the ground.

As long as the regime endures, it at least prevents Sunni jihadists from consolidating their hold over the whole nation and creating a strategic sanctuary along Syria’s coasts.

The moral and political problems posed by Syria’s civil war during the past four years have been real and extremely difficult ones. Assad heads a brutal regime that, according to The Washington Post, has killed about seven times as many people as Islamic State in the first six months of this year.

But the cold, hard reality is that if the US and its allies are serious about defeating the Sunni jihadists, and not merely determined to feel virtuous and moralistic, we will need to tone down our
anti­Russian bombast, restore a dialogue with Putin and recognise the madness of regime change in Damascus. And if that means accommodating Putin’s power play in the Middle East, so be it.