Source: Marxmail, December 1-3, 2002
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter
In the past 48 hours the devastating drought that has affected eastern Australia for the last year began to break with the sudden onset of short bursts of semi-monsoon rains of the sort that are characteristic of the Northern Territory and sometimes affect subtropical south-eastern Australia.
There’s only a modest amount of rain so far, but most weather experts say this is the beginning of the breaking of the drought, which is a great relief for farmers particularly, but also urban dwellers because water restrictions have been imposed in Sydney and other urban centres.
Something similar has happened in politics. A month of patient, complex and occasionally stormy organising and coalition building and mass publicity has produced in Sydney the largest antiwar demonstration since the Vietnam War.
After overnight rain, which dented the recent heat wave, Saturday was mild and overcast as the Walk Against the War assembled at Sydney Town Hall. The rally was addressed at the start by Australian Council of Trade Unions president Sharan Burrow, and other speakers.
The march moved off at about 12.30pm on the old route of Sydney May Day parades from the Town Hall to the Domain, past St Marys Catholic Cathedral.
I stationed myself in Park Street, a good counting point, and using a method that I’ve used over many years, counted groups of roughly 100, which is not too difficult because at that point people move in rows of about seven to 10.
By the time the march passed that point, I’d counted roughly 17,000 and I joined the end of the march. By the time the end got to the Domain, another block and a half length had joined the march behind me and I counted them as they walked into the Domain: about another 4000-5000. Anecdotal evidence is that about 2000 people went directly to the Domain and people were still pouring in as the rally there got under way.
The police, who are usually conservative in their estimates, estimated the numbers at between 15,000 and 20,000 and a number of the rally marshals estimated 25,000, which I think is realistic based on my counting (I’ve been counting demonstrations, May Day marches, etc, for 45 years).
Several factors must be taken into account. The rally took place during Ramadan, and the large numbers of observant Muslims (noticeable by the chadors worn by the women), who have been a significant portion of marches a couple of months ago, weren’t obviously present in large numbers.
In addition, university campuses have just closed down for the summer holidays, so mass student participation was probably less than it would be during term. Given those factors, the 25,000 turnout is an enormous leap for Sydney.
The social mix of the marchers was extremely diverse. Possibly 1000 people came in special buses from the South Coast and Newcastle. While having a breather, sitting down, waiting for the rally to start, I got talking to the wife of a retired wharfie who now lives at Kiama, who had brought her grand-daughter along on the bus, a young woman of 12 or 13 decked out in a red dress, and both were fired up with trade union anti-imperialist sentiment and were obviously networking with acquaintances among retired wharfies from Sydney.
A feature of the demonstration was a big turnout of the older generation of the labour movement left, militant trade unionists, left Laborites and Stalinists; old friends, opponents and friendly opponents, with whom I’ve been arguing and demonstrating for 40 years.
Time hasn’t exactly removed the differences, but it has mellowed the relationships and everybody was elated and excited at the size of the turnout and the anger at Bush’s threatened imperialist war.
I ran into literally hundreds of people who marched again and again and again over Vietnam, including a number of people who I bailed out of jail at different times, and several who had bailed me out. Human associations formed in real struggles are pretty strong.
There were banners and significant participation from the following unions: the metalworkers, the building workers (both tradespersons and unskilled), the Teachers Federation, the Independent Teachers Union (teachers in private schools), the communications and plumbers union, Public Service Association (state public servants) and the Nurses Association (about 20 nurses around one banner). (Last week, the bi-monthly delegates’ meeting of Nurses Association members, attended by about 200 members because of pressing industrial issues, in which the militants corrected the industrial position of the moderate leadership by a vote of two to one, also carried by two to one the necessary motion to support the Walk Against the War.)
There were probably about 300 members of the Greens organised in two or three vocal groups, and two or three Greens politicians marching. There was a group of about 50 members of the Democrats, with some Democrat politicians. There were four Labor politicians that I could see: state MLC Meredith Burgman, president of the upper house; Ian West also a NSW MLC; Paul Lynch, the state member for Liverpool; and Tanya Plibersek, the federal member for Sydney. Large groups marched around the Labor for Refugees banner and the Inner West Labor for Refugees banner and there were several ALP branch banners.
There were 100 marshalls and 40 fund collectors with buckets, and the overwhelming majority of these people were young student left Laborites or young left Labor activists working full-time for unions, with a scattering of older Stalinist unionists. At big events like this, a certain self-selection of roles takes place. The far left like to sell their papers, and do their necessary propaganda work, and the young left Laborites and trade union officials like to flex their muscle a bit as marshals, and some of the loyal old Stalinist women who’ve been working for the peace movement for 40 or 50 years tend to collect the money. It’s out of these very human divisions of labour that real movements are sometimes built. That was certainly the case during the biggest movement ever in Australia against an imperialist war, the Vietnam War in the 1960s.
There were probably, by my estimate, 300-400 ALP members in the protest, and 100 or so members of Stalinist organisations. The non-Stalinist far left, the DSP, ISO and Socialist Alternative were well-represented, numbering perhaps 250-300 between them, with youth and active sympathisers. They mainly concentrated on running their literature stalls and energetic paper selling.
The most striking feature of the whole thing, however, was an enormous number of people across all age groups who appeared to be unaffiliated politically and had just turned out for the event, which was evident from the fact that the socialist paper sellers seemed to be doing a good trade, presumably with people who hadn’t seen or noticed the papers before.
The age breakdown of the demonstration was interesting. Quite a few were elderly, a large number between 30-55 and there was a very substantial number of youth. Modern Australia’s mixed ethnicity was also well represented, judging by the faces.
The speakers were powerful and effective, and had a sharp antiwar and anti-imperialist (both US and Australian) message. Particularly moving and forceful were the Catholic Bishop of Canberra-Goulburn, Pat Power; the actor Judy Davis; and the powerful voice for the excluded and oppressed, John Pilger, who pointedly attacked the Australian media for their lack of interest in the protest, reflected in their poor attendance at a press conference during the week. The event was effectively chaired by the actor John Howard (the other John Howard).
The success of the protest is a big leap forward for the campaign in Australia against the Bush-Howard Iraq war drive. It was such a success because, despite difficulties and conflicts, all the forces in the Sydney left and progressive community made a deliberate attempt to work together: Trotskyists, Stalinists, Laborites, Greens, Democrats, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims and atheists, straight people, gay people and a lot of other categories besides.
Holding the united coalition together for further demonstrations won’t be easy, but it can happen and it is a necessary precondition for the further development of the necessary mass campaign against this latest wave of imperialist war.
Sydney is a city of four million people, Australia’s “world city” and something of a financial hub for capitalism in the Asian region. In the word of Leadbelly “it’s a bourgeois town”, but it has a strong labour movement that still has plenty of life in it, and a tradition of opposition to imperialist wars.
These days, due to mass migration, over the past 15 years in particular, from Asia and the Middle East, it’s an extremely multi-ethnic city. Allowing for children, the very old, people who are in hospitals and jails, etc, 25,000 people is about 1 per cent of the active adult population. That 1 per cent were in a united and angry mood in opposition to the threatened war.
Today’s demonstration was an extremely good start to the necessary campaign. One of the Labor politicians who marched, a longtime leftist, said to a friend of mine that he was pretty dispirited about the state of labour movement and just when he was dispirited along comes an event like to today’s to demonstrate that there’s life in the old town yet.
Demonstrations also took place today in Darwin, Canberra (1000) and Adelaide (1500). Melbourne, which often turns out very big numbers and also has a diverse and united antiwar organising committee, holds its march tomorrow.
With the Sydney demonstration against the war, and the Victorian elections, November 30 was a very big day in Australian left and labour movement politics.
The Victorian election campaign has been going on for the past month. The Liberal-National Coalition conducted a scare campaign attacking the Labor government for being allegedly too close to the trade union movement, and it tried to exploit the perceived gloomy rightward mood in the electorate since the Bali bombing and September 11.
Well, it didn’t work. The Liberal-National vote collapsed. There was first-preference swing of about 10 per cent to Labor and over and above that the Greens leapt from 2 per cent to nearly 10 per cent of the electorate. The Labor first-preference vote was 48.7 per cent and the Greens' first preference vote was 9.25 per cent.
At the close of counting tonight it appears that Labor had 58 per cent of the vote after preferences and had won 21 seats from the conservatives, taking them up to 62 seats to the conservatives 25 in the lower house, with two seats going to independents.
There is still an outside chance that the Greens will win one of two inner-Melbourne seats where there is a high concentration of tertiary-educated voters in the new social layers, in which the Greens poll extremely well.
At the close of counting on Saturday night, Labor had 48 per cent (1,227,367), the Liberal-Nationals had 38 per cent (968,030), Greens 9.25 per cent (234, 474), Citizens Electoral Council (the Larouchites) 0.31 per cent (7803), Democrats 0.12 per cent(3092) and Socialist Alliance 0.11 per cent (2746). In the small number of electorates in which the Socialist Alliance stood, they got between 1 and 2 per cent, and Steve Jolly from the Socialist Party (the former Militant Group) got 2 per cent. These are respectable votes for the Socialist Alliance, but they are clearly overwhelmed by the swing to Labor and the Greens and they are even less than half that of the Larouchites.
Nick Fredman and the DSP leadership damn the current Sydney antiwar movement with faint praise. It’s not unreasonable to take Nick Fredman’s recent post about the Sydney protest as the general view of the DSP leadership because he puts well a number of things they say verbally but rarely put in print in such a straightforward way.
For a start, Fredman’s view of the number of the numbers in the first Gulf War demonstrations is wildly inflated. It’s not too difficult to compare the size of the protests, in memory, because a number of them started at Town Hall Square and I counted several of them in the same way that I described in my previous post, and I never got past more than 8000-10,000 in 1991. The biggest of them, the 8000-10,000 one, was only about half the length of Saturday’s march.
I stand by my assertion that Saturday’s demonstration was the biggest explicitly antiwar demonstration since the movement against the Vietnam War. (Some of the Palm Sunday marches in the mid-1980s were bigger, but they were around very general environmental, anti-nuclear and peace themes that were popular at that time, not against a specific war).
The other aspect of Nick Fredman’s post, which expresses the sectarian aspect of DSP thinking, is the whingeing about the delegated character of the very broad and united committee that organised last Saturday’s demonstration around the completely principled and far-reaching slogan of specific and total opposition to Bush’s war against the Iraqi people.
To support their grumbling about the structural arrangements in this committee, in which the DSP along with all the far left is included, but the DSP can’t dominate, Fredman and the DSP leadership create a myth of the “golden past”, which is historically inaccurate in a number of ways.
It’s true that after five or six years of political agitation and heightened consciousness from that agitation among antiwar activists, the two Vietnam Moratoriums in 1970-71, the high point of the agitation, were organised through open meetings of sponsors. That doesn’t exhaust the question even of the Moratoriums, however. A great deal of negotiation took place between the different components of the movement: the more militant youth groups and the older labour movement and Stalinist networks, to keep the thing united.
The secretariat, the main organising body, was always carefully selected to represent the main currents of the movement. In particular, John Percy and Phil Sandford, who follow Marxmail, would remember all that, because they, along with myself, were vigorous participants in those developments. We didn’t make a fetish of the mass sponsors’ meetings. They were useful, but we were also preoccupied with holding all the diverse forces together, and in fact the left of the movement took the most deliberate initiatives to maintain unity despite what the self-serving late recruit to Stalinism, Denis Freney, said in his autobiography.
In the seven-year build-up to the Moratoriums, different organisational arrangements prevailed at different times. For a couple of years the right-wing Stalinist forces, for instance, acquiesced in my election, along with several other representatives of the radical youth groups, to the executive of the official left Stalinist peace movement, the Association for International Co-operation and Disarmament.
However, they demonstrably defeated me for that executive position in 1967 after the Vietnam Action Campaign and myself challenged them by defending the continuation of federal Labor leader Arthur Calwell’s policy of complete withdrawal of Australian troops from Vietnam, in opposition to the CPA’s policy of “stop the bombing, negotiate”. In 1967 I was also expelled from the official left ALP Steering Committee in NSW for helping to rally about 40 per cent of that year’s ALP state conference behind Calwell’s withdrawal policy when the official left and the Stalinists were peddling support for Gough Whitlam’s more moderate “stop the bombing, negotiate”.
As those events indicate, relationships and political conflicts in the Vietnam antiwar movement were often stormy. Despite this, as a deliberate matter of policy, the Vietnam Action Campaign and Resistance participated in all the broad mobilising committees, along with the Stalinist official peace movement, which dominated them, in the broader Sunday marches, which were usually a bit bigger than our more militant Friday night street demonstrations.
The committees for the broader demonstrations were all, up to the Moratorium period, delegated. We didn’t whinge about the delegated character of the committees, we just made extremely sure that we had plenty of delegates to those committees and our minority often carried the day politically.
You don’t always have to stack a meeting with a bunch of youth to achieve your political ends, although we did a bit of stacking now and then, as everyone in politics does on occasion.
The DSP leadership’s whingeing about the delegated character of the current Sydney committee is politically very destructive. The facts of life are these: we are just, in Australia, beginning to emerge from a very conservative political period (contrary to the overoptimism of, for instance, the British leadership of the International Socialist current).
At Easter last year, the assorted liberal left and Stalinist groups excluded the DSP and the rest of the far left from the organising committee of the very successful Palm Sunday march in Sydney, which was an act of sectarianism despite the sometimes provocative behaviour of the DSP. The exclusion was a red-baiting act, which I strenuously opposed at the time, as did a lot of others who don’t particularly love the DSP. In the run-up to Saturday’s successful demonstration, the more conservative forces caved in and dropped any idea of exclusions, but insisted on a delegated structure.
The meetings that took place were pretty interesting. A number of the Stalinists and members of the official left are quite as antagonistic to me, for instance, as they are to the DSP, but they put up with our presence, and in fact they began to work pretty well at the organisational level, particularly with the DSP representatives, who did a very good job of practical organising within the framework of that committee, and whose bright idea of getting John Pilger proved to be a master stroke in giving the event a strongly anti-imperialist flavour and getting a much bigger crowd.
The DSP’s contribution to the event, from this angle, was considerable. It seems to me that their obsession with the structural arrangements reflects a suppressed irritation on their part that they don’t entirely run the show and that they have to do business with the left Laborites and others.
They express these underlying sentiments in a verbal diatribe about the structural arrangements. I think their attitude is misplaced. Whether the structure is delegated or some sort of mass meeting is entirely tactical and the delegate structure in these circumstances achieves the desired end of getting a principled political position for the coalition, and the broadest possible outreach into the labour movement and the community at large.
I’ve cracked a few little smiles, privately, through the whole process, at being in a room full of people, including quite a lot of Stalinists with whom I’ve been in conflict, in some cases for 45 years.
I’m not like Gary McLennan, however, I don’t feel physically sick at being in the same room with old opponents. It amuses and excites me, in fact, when the result of the process is to mobilise 1 per cent of the active adult population of this “bourgeois town”, Sydney, in the necessary beginnings of a mass campaign against the Bush-Howard imperialist war.
Nick Fredman and the DSP ought to drop their implicit aspiration to hegemony embodied in their hankering after mass meetings, which they might be able to stack. They should recognise the reality of the existing relationship of forces, which is that they are a distinct minority of the movement. They should continue to do what they have, in fact, done reasonably well in this committee, which is to use their considerable organisational talents as a minority to influence the outcome in the committee.
In the event, I’m reasonably confident that in the broad committee that has emerged it’s possible to construct a sufficient bloc to ensure that a generally principled opposition to the Iraq war continues, and that a sufficient variety of people and organisations, including those who hold views to the right of the more principled position, are present in the committee, to help mobilise the maximum forces in opposition to the war.
Postscript on the Victorian elections. It now seems clear that Labor has won a majority in the notoriously reactionary Victorian upper house. This is the first time a stable Labor majority in the upper house has existed in Victoria, except for a brief, unstable three-month period in 1985. Premier-elect Steve Bracks has already indicated his intention of legislating to reform the upper house by introducing proportional representation, despite the fact that the short-term effect of this may well be to benefit the Greens, as well as clearly benefiting Labor, because the Labor vote is heavily concentrated in a number of industrial areas.
As an unfinancial, religiously agnostic but culturally identified part of the Irish Empire, I’m a bit bemused by Nick Fredman’s surprise at finding inhabitants of the mass religious organisation known as the Catholic Church on the left of society. His slightly condescending tone about “the good sister and I” irritates me a bit, but I’ll put it down to Nick being on a steep learning curve on matters of religious sociology, as he is on some other questions.
Taken as a whole, Irish Catholics in Australia have been on the left since convict times despite the right-wing Catholic Action, Grouper aberration in years immediately after World War II. As coincidence would have it, we’ve just posted my piece Race, nationality and religion in Australia on Ozleft and I recommended it to Nick for intense study to bring him up to speed on the history of that religious question in Australia, along with a shorter piece about my own family, which illustrates some of the demography of Australia. Also relevant is my piece, Bob Santamaria and Bob Gould, about the Labor split of the mid-1950s and the Communist Party in Australian Life, which also throws light on the political divisions in the labour movement in the 20th century, including religious divisions.
Taken as a whole, Nick Fredman’s post is very sensible, and I note that he has dropped the view he expressed previously that there were no Laborites in sight on the left around Lismore. I find Nick’s account of the healthy united front and substantial demonstration in Lismore, and the respectful attitude of the subtropical rain, entertaining and heartening.
Nick Fredman and I will just have to agree to disagree about the size of the demonstrations in 1991. I have my memory of doing a count, and he has the Green Left figures.
Comrade Fredman and I have worn each other down, on the basis of sharp and far-reaching exchanges, to reasonable civility and we may even have taught each other a bit, who knows?
Ben Reid, the DSP bloke from Newcastle, is a different proposition. He reacts like an irritated hornet to my observations about the underlying strategic attitude of the DSP, which is actually contradicted by their rather more sensible practice leading up to the recent Sydney demonstrations. Reid, for me, is like Voltaire’s god: if Reid didn’t exist, he ought to be invented, as he spells out in such an unbridled and educational way the political line of the DSP leadership.
Ben Reid accuses me of smearing the DSP. He can’t seem to comprehend the difference between a sharp political argument about divergent strategies and a smear. Most of his argument in response to my assertion loudly confirms that what he calls a smear was an accurate description of the underlying tactical attitude of the DSP, because he repeats in spades the tactical attitude that I was criticising. I suppose I’m now guilty of smearing Ben Reid for pointing that out.
The extreme venom of Ben Reid’s response underlines my general point. He takes the DSP fetish about using some kind of mass meeting to run demonstrations in current conditions to a new height of rhetorical absurdity.
His extravagant rhetoric suggests there are masses of young activists just out there itching to come forward and take over the “democratic decision-making” for future demonstrations.
That sort of rhetoric from a sub-Leninist, Zinovievist group like the DSP is always extremely problematic. A feature of the internal political outlook and life of the DSP is a highly centralised view, including a considerable distrust of “spontaneity”, so when the DSP talks about “activists” coming forward to make democratic decisions, it’s usually talking about organising those “activists” to follow its line, and those “activists” will usually in practice turn out to be young supporters of the DSP.
The problem for the DSP and Ben is that everybody else involved in these movements knows the score and nobody outside the DSP’s own ranks takes their ingenuous democratic rhetoric as anything more than the tactical ploy that it is.
I’m a bit puzzled, in fact, why they persist with this rhetoric in Sydney. They don’t press it so much in other cities. For instance, it’s my understanding that the Melbourne demonstrations are organised by a more or less delegated structure convened by the Victorian Trades Hall Council, and I’m given to believe that the DSP quite sensibly accepts that situation in the interests of unity. (I’d be very interested if some Melbourne comrade might describe the internal dynamics of the main antiwar committee in that city.)
Why make a fuss of it in Sydney when you don’t make a fuss about it in Melbourne? I’m genuinely a bit puzzled by the different tactical approach in the two cities.
Ben Reid paints a picture of a Sydney committee dominated by conservative Laborites and he directs insulting rhetoric about Mick Costa and guard dogs at me and any other Laborite in the committee, which is pretty stupid. I reiterate my point from the previous post that the delegated structure was a practical necessity to accommodate all the disparate forces in one organisation, and it has worked extremely well.
The lines of division on the committee don’t fit Ben Reid’s DSP stereotype of conservative Laborites holding back the rest at all. In the initial argument about aims, the people favouring a generalised pacifist Walk Against War, weren’t Laborites at all, and the Laborites supported Walk Against The War, meaning Bush’s war, which won a comfortable majority. On organisational matters, the Laborites and the DSP have got along swimmingly. For instance, only two people, myself and Bruce Cornwell (the chairman of the CPA-ML), expressed some caution about possibly saddling the committee with a large debt by hiring The Domain for $15,000 when the alternative was an overflow gathering at a smaller park that was free, and we were democratically voted down on this question by a majority that included both the other Laborites and the DSP. That’s the democratic and healthy way points of view were put and decisions were taken. The idea of a bloc of Laborites dominating the committee is Ben Reid’s fantasy.
Obviously, if a war actually starts, which seems likely, and the ALP federal parliamentary party caves in on some pretext or other, there will then be the necessary battle in the committee to maintain and expand its opposition to the war, regardless of the ALP leadership’s position.
In my estimate the balance of forces in the Sydney committee is such that there will be a clear majority to continue complete opposition to the war, even in those circumstances, and that majority will include most of the Laborites participating in the committee.
It's self-interested nonsense to say the antiwar coalition should give a licence to the DSP to beat the drum for its youth to go to the meetings as ostensible “activists” to keep everyone else in line.
When writing letters of a righteous, progressive sort to the bourgeois press, Ben Reid uses tactics a bit by signing himself as Dr Ben Reid to give his letters more authority, a reasonable tactic. So what’s wrong with the tactic of having delegated committees to hold everybody in the united front that we can, in the difficult current conditions?
Ben Reid lives in Newcastle, a conservative, overwhelmingly working-class, blue-collar Labor city. It seems to me that he needs to drop his nasty, abusive, anti-Labor tone if he wants to build a successful, broad antiwar committee in Newcastle.
It’s one thing to make a stupid point abusing Bob Gould (because he’s a Laborite in the same organisation as Costa and the guard dogs) but if Reid uses that kind of rhetoric in Newcastle (which if he’s halfway sensible he may not) he’ll find it is completely counter-productive to the task of organising a substantial committee against the war. Any antiwar committee in Newcastle that doesn’t have a big contingent of Laborites won’t be much of an antiwar committee.