A resolution from the Greens was a bit critical of the previous BNB demonstration but the vital element supported the right of the students to hold their next demonstration.
There was a similar resolution from the Teachers Federation, put forward by Phil Bradley, the union’s assistant secretary and left Labor Party member, also critical of past mistakes by BNB but declaring support for the right of the students to demonstrate on the following Wednesday, subject to appropriate measures such as better marshalling, etc.
The chair of the meeting, who favoured the resolution calling on BNB to drop the Wednesday demonstration, was a bit cute, and insisted that the two most-opposed resolutions, the one from Everitt and the one opposing the Wednesday protest, be put, and he squeezed out the two critical but student-supportive resolutions from being considered in the main vote.
The far left speakers by and large supported the Everitt resolution and avoided any criticism of the previous demonstration. A number of speakers opposing the Books Not Bombs demonstration attacked the students in a rather unrestrained way.
A third group of speakers, including myself, some ALP members such as Phil Bradley, and the Greens, particularly Sylvia Hale who made a rousing and intelligent speech and also, it must be said, some of the better old Stalinists who were present made some criticisms of the DSP’s tactics but took a position in support of the students’ right to protest on the Wednesday.
The chairman persisted with his device and made the key resolution the one calling for cancellation of the Wednesday protest. The meeting divided 55-45 on this, with most of the delegates, including myself, who had had some criticisms of the DSP but supported the students, voting against the resolution, which was, unfortunately, carried.
In my estimate about half the 45 opponents of the resolution were the DSP and the far left as a group, and the other half were people such as myself, the Greens and the Teachers’ representatives, who were a bit critical of the DSP but for whom the main point was to support the students’ right to demonstrate and reject the witch-hunt. (In the build-up to this meeting there had been a lot of loose talk from the most conservative forces in the Labor left about throwing, in particular the DSP, out of the antiwar coalition, and a lot of us were mobilising against this possibility. In the event, shrewder heads prevailed in that camp and there was no serious attempt to proscribe the DSP or any other group or individual.)
After the meeting most of the participants adjourned to the Trades Hall bar downstairs, where John Percy and eight or nine DSP members gathered in a group, while the rest of the far left circulated among the trade unionists who had just voted against us, trying both to change their point of view and to defuse the situation and preserve the unity of the Walk Against the War coalition, which is a broader question than just the student demonstration.
The unity of the coalition was, in fact, preserved and the majority at that meeting edged away from a split. (In my usual ebullient way, I tried to move from defusing the situation with some of the trade unionists to trying to talk to the DSP group around John Percy, but he wasn’t having any of that, and abused me roundly, for the benefit of his younger associates, for alleged betrayal in making any public criticism of the DSP.
After a bit of a slanging match I gave up on John as a bad job and moved away to the more congenial company of the rest of the far left and some of the better trade unionists.
TUESDAY, April 1, was the annual general meeting of the Erskineville branch of the Labor Party, at which branch office bearers for the year are elected. The branch meets about 10 times a year. Seventeen people attended, most positions were uncontested, and I got myself elected as a delegate to the Federal Electoral Council and an alternate delegate to the Marrickville State Electoral Council, the two positions I wanted, but to my surprise a ballot was necessary for the positions on the other State Electoral Council, for the electorate of Heffron, where three people who work for different Labor politicians competed for two positions. A contested election is an unusual event in the Erskineville branch.
In general business we carried motions demanding an amnesty for all Iraqi and Afghan refugees, to give them permanent residence status, and a similar motion was carried concerning Timorese refugees.
A motion was carried demanding that the federal Labor caucus reaffirm the policy of immediate withdrawal of Australian troops from Iraq.
I moved to assert the right of the students to demonstrate on the Wednesday, and demanding that the coppers be more conciliatory towards the students and grant them a permit. An interesting feature of the discussion was the anger of one bloke who works in government, who knew about such matters, who made the point that the police were taking advantage of the caretaker period between one government and the next to assert their power. He may be right, but the key question is that the Premier’s Office was completely complicit in the actions of the police, which I said in speaking to the motion.
All the motions were carried 16-1, with one conservative old bloke in opposition. That’s the way it is in the Erskineville branch of the ALP.
WEDNESDAY, April 2, was the day of the Books Not Bombs protest. In answer to the organisers’ call for older activists to come along as peace monitors or marshals, I went along in the spirit of asserting the right of the students to protest, and also in a mood to help avoid any collision with the police, which the organisers by this time were quite anxious to avoid.
I was part of a rather motley crew of 70 or 80 such people, including a few older members of the DSP, some parents of high-school students, including some Muslim parents, and quite a few of the better kind of old Stalinist, who don’t like the DSP much, but wanted to assist in ensuring fair play for the students.
Early on, it looked like the protest was going to be a bit of a disaster numerically, but it picked up towards the appointed time. An hour into the protest I did a very systematic count, which was possible in a demonstration of this relatively small size, and the statistics are these: there were about 70-80 marshals/peace monitors; about 20 media and legal observers; about 500 students of whom about 100 were university students, 200 were Middle Eastern high school students, and 200 were other high school students.
These were respectable figures considering the tactical mistakes made by the DSP initially, and particularly considering the ferocity of the Premier’s and the tabloid media’s attacks on the protest.
The demonstration was matched by a quite extraordinary mobilisation of police. They were lined up in two solid rows at one end of Town Hall Square and in another two solid rows at the other end of the square, facing George Street. A careful count showed their numbers to be about 420 in Town Hall Square, and if you allow for perhaps 80 others around the corner in paddy wagons, etc, the police mobilisation was about 500, which is unusual for any demonstration in Sydney, let alone one that was inevitably going to be of modest size, given the circumstances. (The Green Left Weekly account of the protest exactly doubles the number of protesters to 1200 and the number of police to 1000, but anyone who was present, who did any kind of elementary count would know that the GLW story is not accurate. In this respect, GLW is a bit like the very game Iraqi information minister, who has been so persistently making claims about Baghdad that often fly in the face of visual reality. At least Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf has the rational justification that he’s involved in a shooting war against imperialism. It’s unwise to imitate his example at small demonstrations, which can be counted relatively easily.)
The police command behaved in an arrogant and devious way at this protest. They were clearly demonstrating their physical power, in that they made it quite impossible to march anywhere, short of a headlong confrontation with the police lines. They said we could hold a rally in the square, but then they refused permission for a sound truck, which forced the organisers to use loud hailers for the rally, which was rather ineffective and particularly difficult when many of the demonstrators were boisterous, angry Middle Eastern high-school students from the western suburbs.
The denial of the sound truck was in fact a police device to provoke clashes, which the police claimed to be there to prevent.
The Middle Eastern youths ran around a bit, making a fair bit of noise and having a modest Sydney intifada, with many chants in Arabic, which included, occasionally, the vernacular slogans of the Arab street focussing on Zionism, which no civilised leftist would utter. Happily, the tabloid media, which were present and looking for trouble, did not pick up on this aspect of the demonstration. This aspect underlines the difficulties facing the organisers.
In all the difficult circumstances, the organisers did their best and this modest protest was quite successful within the limits imposed by the police blockade, and there were only a couple of arrests.
A number of high-school students addressed the protest, as did Sylvia Hale from the Greens. I formed part of a line of marshals and monitors at the back of the square and several times we managed to separate the Middle Eastern youth from the coppers.
Finally, as the protest broke up, the police imposed the humiliating procedure of only allowing people to leave in small groups, and this precipitated a melee in which the monitors and marshals, including myself, had a rather hectic and difficult 15 minutes or so, physically keeping the Middle Eastern youth from colliding with the coppers.
After the demonstration finally broke up at about 3pm I had coffee with some to the better type of Stalinists and some others from the Walk Against the War coalition, who had helped in defusing the clashes, and one of the people I was having coffee with suddenly got a phone call from someone in the street near the Trades Hall, who painted a vivid verbal picture of 30 or so Middle Eastern youth running very fast down the street towards Darling Harbour, followed by four or five ALP left and right students who were peace monitors and my ALP member daughter, Natalie, also a peace monitor, trying to quieten or at least protect the Middle Eastern youth, the whole running procession followed by panting coppers and a police helicopter.
Some of these youths were later arrested and bailed on minor charges, such as offensive behaviour.
Taken as a whole, even the tabloid media had to concede that the main protest went off relatively free of incident, and there were few arrests, almost all of them during this independent frolic towards Darling Harbour, which was caused partly by the extravagant behaviour of the police in the way they controlled people leaving the protest.
WEDNESAY evening: The Walk Against the War coalition meeting. After the demonstration, the adjourned meeting of the full Walk Against the War coalition to finally choose the speakers for the Palm Sunday demonstration took place, once again in Room 33 at the Trades Hall.
The numbers were down somewhat from the 120 present on the Monday night, to about 60-70. The attempt to throw the DSP out of the coalition, which had been rumoured, and which a number of us were geared up to strenuously oppose, didn’t eventuate. Wiser heads had prevailed, particularly as the predicted disasters had not taken place at the demonstration that day and the collisions with police had been quite limited.
The first three speakers were not contentious and were endorsed unanimously. They were Andrew Wilkie, the former intelligence agent who recently resigned in opposition to the war, a human shield who has just returned from Iraq who has been forthright and intelligent on Australian television, and a Kurd from the section of the Iraqi community that opposes the war.
The discussion on the other three speakers was more contentious. These were the three speakers I had proposed at the Monday meeting. The first conflict was whether the trade union speaker should be Maree O’Halloran, the Teachers Federation president, or Doug Cameron, the national secretary of the metalworkers union and a leading figure in the part of the Labor Party left that is very defensive of the interests of parliamentary leader Simon Crean.
Several Teachers Federation delegates made the point that O’Halloran is a very potent speaker and the federation was the first union to come out strongly against the war in Iraq. These speakers had some impact as they are generally not associated with the far left in coalition meetings.
Peter Murphy, from the Search Foundation, the ghost of the dissolved Communist Party of Australia, who now works for one of the left unions, said a left union meeting had decided on Cameron, but when the Teachers’ union women questioned Murphy about when and where this meeting took place, he was rather evasive.
In my speech I made the point, to general amusement, that when Peter Murphy says something has taken place, in my considered experience that may not be the last word on the matter, and that there may be other aspects to consider.
I successfully moved that the coalition’s preferred trade union speaker should be Maree O’Halloran, and that Cameron be the alternative (which, of course, makes it possible to further test Murphy’s assertions about left union meetings).
The final two speakers were then selected together. I had earlier proposed that we select a panel of speakers before fixing the number, but the more conservative delegates rejected this idea and the number of speakers was fixed at six.
Some of the old Stalinists and some of the more conservative Laborites argued strongly against having speakers from either the ALP or the Greens.
In my view this opposition was based on an underlying desire not to embarrass Simon Crean with forthright statements for immediate withdrawal from Iraq. But such statements are desirable, which is why I proposed Carmen Lawrence, the most forthright advocate of withdrawal in the federal parliamentary Labor Party, and Sylvia Hale, the newly elected Greens parliamentarian from NSW, who is in fact an old friend, but who is also possibly the most powerful political orator on the left in this state.
The more conservative forces pushed for Sister Susan Connolly, who I would have included as well if the speakers had not been limited to six, and the DSP and some of the Stalinists raised the idea of supporting a high school student who is a good debater. The supporters of the high school student share a visceral hostility to the Labor Party, which led them to oppose having Carmen Lawrence.
For these last two positions we all got two votes. The DSP, the far left, myself and some of the Laborites voted for Sylvia Hale, and she romped in. A number of the Laborites, myself, the ISO, Socialist Alternative, and others on the far left, voted for Carmen Lawrence. The DSP, some of the Stalinists and the more conservative Laborites voted for Sister Connolly and the high school student, and against Carmen Lawrence and Sylvia Hale, but they were unsuccessful. Sylvia Hale from the Greens and Carmen Lawrence from the left of the parliamentary ALP were thus the selected speakers.
The final matter was chairpersons for the rally. I moved that Amanda Tattersall, a young leftist employee of the Labor Council, who had supported calls for the Wednesday student rally to be abandoned, but who was a powerful and effective chair of the emergency rally on the day war was declared, should jointly chair the rally with Nick Everitt from the DSP, who is the only one of the three major convenors of the coalition who has not yet either spoken at a rally or chaired one. It’s his turn.
My proposal was vigorously resisted by some of the more conservative Laborites and some old Stalinists, but it was carried overwhelmingly and I was rather pleased with myself that I’d helped to achieve a platform for the big Palm Sunday mobilisation that is both widely representative, politically leftist on the vital question of withdrawal of troops, and all of the speakers are powerful and interesting orators who can be relied upon to inspire the crowd.
I’m also pleased that the arrangement for joint chairpersons for the rally preserves the idea of the united front in the Walk Against the War coalition despite the tense tactical differences of the past week or so.
Peter Murphy, from the Search Foundation, accosted me as I was leaving, making dire predictions that I had smashed the peace movement and the trade unions would withdraw, etc, etc, but I took his bluster with a grain of salt. He was obviously peeved that his ultra-conservative political orientation hadn’t won out. The next day on the email list that goes out to Walk Against the War affiliates, Murphy expressed his annoyance at the speakers’ platform democratically adopted by the coalition and rather curiously blamed it all on the usual scapegoat, the DSP, which in this instance is rather unfair to both the DSP and to me, as in fact I had successfully moved most of the speakers Murphy objected to.
Murphy’s peevishness seems to have had little impact; organisation for the Palm Sunday rally is proceeding as usual and all speakers and chairpersons have accepted, although the unions are still discussing which leader will be the trade union speaker.
FRIDAY, April 4. In the evening the DSP held the Sydney meeting for the Socialist Alliance’s national tour of left intellectual and historian Humphrey McQueen, one again in Room 33 at the Trades Hall. It’s a bit extraordinary to attend meetings in the same room on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
About 45 people attended, which was a rather small gathering for McQueen. About a third were DSP members, a third were from the rest of the far left and a third were relatively inactive habitual meeting-goers. The small turnout of left activists was predictable after the high drama, tension and activity of the previous 10 days.
Humphrey McQueen and I are old friends, but political antagonists on matters of strategy in the labour movement. He’s an ultraleft concerning the Labor Party and the unions, and his book on labour history, A New Britannia, dating from his Maoist days in the 1970s, has been one of the most influential books on Australian labour history.
McQueen and I continued our 30-odd year debate on strategic matters in a genial way. The historical irony is that McQueen has converted the DSP, which used to oppose his point of view, to his sectarian outlook. When we adjourned to the Trades Hall bar, I ended up in a long discussion with Peter Boyle and another DSP member about the stormy events of the week, which discussion surprisingly proceeded in a more or less civilised way, considering the tensions.
It seems clear the imperialist forces in Iraq will achieve a tenuous military victory in their rotten war, but that the forces they have unleashed, such as the conflict between the national aspirations of the Kurdish masses and the vicious Turkish state, may present considerable problems for them.
Further considerable problems are likely to flow from the deep hostility of the Iraqi masses, and the Arab masses in general, to the US occupation. Further to this, conflicts between Anglo-American imperialism and French and German imperialism are likely to continue for some time.
In the short term, in Australia, Britain, the US and Europe, the antiwar agitation is likely to decline for the time being in the face of the formal ending of the Iraq war. For instance, it’s likely that the Palm Sunday mobilisations will be somewhat smaller than the turbulent mass demonstrations of the recent period.
Nevertheless, the impact of the Iraq war has had a radicalising effect on a section of the population in Australia, Britain and even the US. The most visible manifestation of this in Australia is the dramatic rise of the Greens as an electoral force.
A second visible manifestation is a radicalisation among the roughly half of society who support the Labor Party electorally. They remain doggedly opposed to the Iraq war despite the vacillations of the Labor parliamentary leadership.
The division in Australian society revealed by the Iraq war is a stark split between the Labor-trade union continuum and the Greens on one side, and the conservatives on the other. This division is relatively independent of the behaviour of the parliamentary leadership of the Labor Party and even the parliamentary leadership of the Greens.
From this obvious reality flows the need for an intelligent strategy on the part of the far left, which incorporates attempts to mobilise and organise the youth radicalised by the war, but also practising a broad strategic united front towards the Labor-Green half of society, which has been radicalised by the Iraq war.
In such an enterprise, the permanent Third Period sectarianism practised, in particular by the DSP, but also by the Socialist Party in Melbourne, the World Socialist Web Site, the Spartacists and a few other small groups, is no use at all.
The Captain Wackys of the DSP leadership who persist in demonising the broad ranks of the labour movement who came into action against the war in Iraq are like the old Bourbon kings who have learned nothing and forgotten nothing from the history of the workers’ movement.
Small Marxist cadre groups that strut around and try to present themselves as a third mass force to the real mass forces in the labour movement, such as the Labor Party and trade unions, and the Greens, are like pit bull terriers that delude themselves they are elephants.
In Australian working class politics there have been three periods when significant groups in the left practised a kind of “Third Period” strategy: in the early 1930s, when the Communist Party made its ultraleft turn, from about 1948-51 when the CP again made an ultraleft swing, and the third is the one practised now by the DSP and a few others.
It’s worth considering that when the CP first adopted the Third Period strategy it did so during the onset of a massive world depression and it had the significant psychological support of the existence of the USSR, which was also the case during the CP’s second bout of Third Periodism, from 1948-51.
The third Third Period, practised by the DSP, is reminiscent of the saying that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy and subsequent times as farce.
A relatively tiny cadre group, like the DSP, which tries to present itself as a generalised popular alternative to the whole of the labour movement and the whole of the Green movement and to the conservative forces in society is engaged in delusional behaviour of the highest order. The position of an alternative leadership of the workers’ movement has to be won in concrete struggles.
The first stage of that development necessarily involves making demands of the existing leadership of the movement and acting as a serious left wing of that movement, not as some kind of alien force just landed from outer space. Unfortunately, the DSP has a deeply ingrained sectarianism towards the existing workers’ movement. One needs only to read the article by Alison Delitt in the current Green Left Weekly (referred to by Peter Boyle recently) to understand this.
Delitt’s whole aim in this lengthy article is to dismiss the progressive impact of the generalised labour movement opposition to the Iraq war by going with a fine-tooth comb through the contradictory statements by various Labor politicians to establish that the labour movement as a whole supports the war, despite the fact that it’s quite clear that the overwhelming majority of the Labor and trade union ranks and the middle levels oppose the war.
This Green Left article is not directed at sharpening the conflict between the ranks who oppose the war and some leaders who are swinging over to support for it, it’s directed at blackguarding the ranks of the labour movement because of the vacillations of some sections of the parliamentary leadership.
That approach, of a kind of moralising sectarianism, is at the centre of the DSP’s Third Periodist approach to the labour movement, and again the DSP chooses to elevate the not unimportant conflict with the Labor Council over the BNB demonstration into a general “proof” that the Labor Council is somehow organically right-wing.
The sharpest expression of this is the DSP’s manifest hostility to the Labour Council website, Workers Online.
This website is far and away the most leftist official labour movement site in the English-speaking world, and the most popular such site. It is updated every week. In its present, permanent belligerent Third Periodist posture the DSP leadership is incapable of sharply criticising the Labor Council when necessary, but combining this with a realistic recognition that compared with the rest of society the Labor Council is substantially on the left, and also that it is clearly recognised by the ranks of the trade unions in NSW as the leadership of the trade unions.
The DSP leadership, unfortunately, lives in a kind of sci-fi parallel universe to most of the activists in the labour movement in this state, and they are almost totally lacking any sense of proportion about conflicts and tactical matters in the workers movement.