Bob Gould, 2004

The Iraq war, evil and the Labor Party
Politically speaking, Dave Riley asserts that black is white, the world is flat and the moon is made of green cheese

Source: Ozleft, April 25, 2004
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

Green Left discussion list, April 27, 2004

Responding to Carl Kenner’s eccentric post carrying on about the Labor Party being “evil”, Dave Riley has posted some opinions that are essentially as bizarre as Kenner’s.

Included in Riley’s assorted historical falsifications is a barefaced distortion of the political events in Australia surrounding the Iraq war.

Riley makes the extraordinary assertion that, in effect, Labor supported the Iraq war. The problem with this weird falsification is that everybody in Australia who reads this list is aware that the opposite is the case. At the time of the Iraq invasion last year, Labor voted unanimously in the federal parliament against sending troops to Iraq without UN authorisation, and stuck to that position.

Just about every ALP member in the country, including many parliamentary politicians, state and federal, marched in the demonstrations against the war. The deputy premier of NSW and the current federal president of the ALP, Carmen Lawrence, were among the more prominent protesters.

Since the election of the new federal leadership, Mark Latham, his deputy Jenny Macklin, Carmen Lawrence, and many other Labor politicians, have defiantly said they opposed sending the troops and the Australian troops will be withdrawn shortly after the election of a federal Labor government. Troops home by Christmas, as Latham puts it.

It’s true that the opposition of Labor to the war is couched in traditional Social Democratic lingo, what would you expect? But to assert, as Riley does in his eccentric way, that the ALP did not oppose the Iraq war is the kind of moralising sectarianism that contributes to the isolation of “Marxists” who talk like that.

Riley insults Labor supporters who oppose the Iraq involvement. If he makes that kind of assertion to them face-to-face, they’re very likely to treat him as if he’s a Martian for trying, in his arrogant way, to tell them what they really think. It’s particularly insulting to many hundreds of Laborites who are resisting the chauvinism being whipped up in support of the Iraq war to be told by someone that they’re not really opposed to the war because they don’t formulate their opposition the same way he does.

People normally react very badly to being accused of holding opinions opposite to the ones that they actually hold.

The only people in Australia who don’t believe that the Labor Party opposed, and still opposes, the Iraq war are a tiny minority of socialist sectarians such as Riley. Everyone else in the leftist half of Australian society — the Labor supporters, the Greens supporters, the members of trade unions, etc — know that what Riley is saying is wrong.

All the opinion leaders on the right of Australian society know he’s wrong too, because they’re frantically whipping up as much hysteria as possible to attack Latham and Labor for allegedly “cutting and running” from the Iraq involvement.

I’m writing this after Anzac Day, which this year has been the occasion for an even more than usually extraordinary media binge in which the bourgeois press have tried to use the commemoration of past wars to justify the Iraq involvement. Sunday’s Telegraph, a Murdoch paper, had a long-winded, almost pleading editorial directed at Mark Latham, demanding peremptorily that he drop Labor’s opposition to the Iraq involvement “in the national interest”.

Yesterday we had the repellent image of “the little digger”, Prime Minister Howard, imitating Billy Hughes with a lightning visit to Iraq for the Anzac commemoration. Front-page pictures everywhere of Howard in a flak jacket being brave, we are told.

Despite all this media hysteria, Latham as late as Monday morning reasserted, again in traditional Social Democratic terms, that a Latham Labor government, if elected, would withdraw Australian troops by Christmas.

This is in the face of all the militarist hysteria associated with Anzac Day and Howard’s visit to Iraq.

Despite all this, Riley continues to insist that Labor doesn’t oppose the Iraq war. What a clown!

Someone who goes around saying that the Labor Party is not really opposed to the Iraq war cuts themselves off, by that posture, from any means of connecting with the consciousness of the half of Australian society that opposes the Iraq war. All that Riley can say to the masses of Labor supporters who oppose the war is a sneering “you’re not really opposed to the war”.

Riley hangs all this on the rhetoric frequently used by Latham and also used in a slightly different way by many antiwar protesters, about “supporting the troops” by bringing them back from Iraq. It’s nonsensically sectarian to equate this position with supporting the war.

Riley doesn’t appear to have noticed the antiwar movement developing in the US among families of US service personnel who want their family members brought home. He seems to have forgotten the experience of the Vietnam antiwar movement, which in Australia on the left side with which I was associated, placed its main emphasis on “bring the troops home now”. In constructing a mass antiwar movement it’s political realism to avoid making crude and direct attacks on service personnel, who are in the final analysis put in harm’s ways and sent to do bad things by their political masters.

Of course Latham and other ALP right-wingers put a slightly conservative spin on “supporting the troops”, but it’s politically stupid to equate this with support for the war, if it is, as in Latham’s case, associated with the proposition that “supporting the troops” means bringing them home.

Dave Riley’s sectarianism towards Labor puts him more or less into the position occupied by Albert Langer and other Maoists during the Vietnam War, who attacked us all because they said the only honourable policy was to support the NLF and that concern for the welfare of Australian troops was a betrayal.

Riley’s account of the Vietnam antiwar movement is just as mad as his comments on the Iraq war. In Australian conditions, the decisive factor that made it possible to mobilise a substantial independent antiwar movement in the early stages of the Vietnam war, when that war was very popular, was the fact that Arthur Calwell, the then Labor leader, took a courageous and belligerent stand in opposition to the war.

Most independent socialist antiwar activists, many of us also in the ALP, threw themselves into the agitational space opened by Calwell, and built a mass antiwar movement comparatively rapidly.

It’s true that the new Labor leader after Calwell, Gough Whitlam, with the full support of the then still powerful Stalinist apparatus in the labour movement, watered down the withdrawal policy, but he didn’t do it without very substantial opposition. At the NSW ALP conference in 1967, I rallied about 40 per cent of the delegates behind a motion reasserting the Calwell policy of withdrawal, and defying Whitlam (for which impudence I was expelled from the official left caucus, the Steering Committee). Similarly, the leftist Victorian state executive also stuck to the withdrawal policy, and an independent and vigorous antiwar agitation, including most Labor Party members nationally, continued during the first 18 months of Whitlam’s leadership.

By the 1969 elections, the combined impact of the worsening of the war and the continued antiwar agitation caused Whitlam to reverse his stance and effectively revert to the withdrawal policy.

When the mass Moratoriums were organised in 1970, the ALP in every state was a central part of those protests, which took place around the demand of immediate withdrawal.

Taken as a whole, Riley’s assertion that the ALP supported the Vietnam War is political nonsense.

Riley is like a caricature of an old-style Jesuit, trying to find a way of saying black is white. He uses the victory of Whitlam in 1967 in watering down the withdrawal policy of the ALP somewhat, to trying to make a case that Labor didn’t oppose the Vietnam War. This ignores the mass politics of the Vietnam agitation.

In the relatively short period from mid-1967 to mid-1969 we militants continued to put pressure on the Labor leadership, and by late 1969 Whitlam somersaulted under the pressure of the worsening military situation and the antiwar agitation, and in practice reverted to the withdrawal position.

No one in Australia that I know, other than Riley and one or two others, remembers the events of the Vietnam struggle in the way that Riley claims to now. Everywhere I go in society at large, and in the workers’ movement, what people remember is our relative success in keeping Labor honest on the Vietnam War. People remember the mass mobilisations against the war in which many Laborites played a leading role, and they also remember that the new Labor government of Whitlam in 1972 withdrew the last troops, released the draft resisters and wound up conscription.

Riley’s version is a rewrite of the events.

When he gets back to World War I, Riley gets very Bolshie about the Labor rat, Hughes. The facts of that historical experience were that initially most Labor politicians and trade union leaders supported the war, but they always opposed conscription.

When the conservative Labor prime minister, Hughes, tried to impose conscription, he was forced by ALP opposition to hold a referendum. He tried to persuade the ALP in the bigger states — NSW, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia — to support conscription, and he was resoundingly defeated by all those ALP state executives.

All four of those state executives adopted a position that any Labor politician who supported conscription would be expelled from the ALP. Immediately after the first referendum, all the right-wing Labor politicians who supported conscription were expelled.

This week, with much fanfare, the Labor Party is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first national Labor government in the world, led by J.C. Watson, which lasted for about 10 weeks. In 1916, a relatively unsentimental Labor Party expelled Watson, along with all the other right-wing politicians who supported conscription.

The defeat of the conscription referendum, by a narrow absolute majority, and narrowly in three of the six states, was largely a product of the organised opposition to conscription of the labour movement throughout the country, the Labor government of T.J. Ryan in Queensland, and the agitation of the radical Catholic bishop Daniel Mannix, who rallied the large Catholic population against conscription.

Hughes tried again in a second referendum and was defeated by a wider margin. Despite the defection of the right wing, which amalgamated with the Tories, the ALP rapidly revived electorally and was elected to state government in NSW in 1921.

In the conscription referendums, the two states with the strongest Labor political representation, NSW and Queensland, voted against conscription by the largest majority.

The conscription split, the defeat of conscription in the referendums, and the impact of the Russian Revolution, shifted the ALP to the left for the next 20 years or so.

The two forces that emerged as decisive influences in Labor politics for those 20 years were the Marxist left and radicalised Irish Catholics. It took a very long time to roll back the radicalisation of the Australian labour movement produced by the conscription campaigns.

Anyone who disputes my account of these events should look at some of the historical material on Ozleft, which contains more detailed accounts of the conscription upheavals and the struggle over the Vietnam War.

The DSP leadership, with which Riley is generally associated, used to know the history of all these events, and I find it fascinating that Riley can say these eccentric things on the Green Left discussion site and no one from the DSP leadership challenges his historical inaccuracies.

Riley’s barefaced attempt to rewrite the history of the Iraq war and the ALP’s attitude to it, not just after the event, but as it’s happening around us, is a really strange phenomenon. One would think that everyone, including Marxists, can see that what he’s saying is nonsense. He’s obviously relying on the peculiar mindset of most of many of his associates, to try to get away with saying black is white.

In a way this throws new light on the way Stalin’s historical falsifications proceeded. If Riley thinks he can rely on a peculiar mindset among some socialists to rewrite history as it’s happening, it gives one a hint of how much easier it must have been for Stalin and his red professors to rewrite the history of the Russian Revolution, when they had a powerful emerging bureaucracy and an increasingly totalitarian state apparatus behind them.

It may seem a bit over the top to reply to Dave Riley’s short comments so extensively, but Riley, a long-time member of the DSP, is now one of the key ostensible independents allied with the DSP in the Socialist Alliance. Clearly his views on these matters have a bearing on the battle that is currently going on in the Socialist Alliance between the DSP current and a number of the small affiliates, some independents and the ISO on Socialist Alliance strategy running up to the coming federal elections.

Those interested in the far-reaching debate now going on in the Socialist Alliance should read the recent discussion bulletins of the Socialist Alliance.