A quiet afternoon in Parramatta
The unified Sydney peace movement is a step forward. But these organisers failed in one of their key tasks - to organise the April 9 Palm Sunday march. We try to uncover the reasons for this failure and the ideas speakers presented to the 200 or so attendees
And the peace movement said unto the masses, "Why hast thou forsaken me"
This year's Palm Sunday peace march failed to capture the imagination of Sydneysiders who are opposed to the continued occupation of Iraq and sick of the lies and spin emerging over the Australian Wheat Board oil-for-food scandal.
With the US threatening to extend its murderous military adventure to Iran you’d have thought that it would have been possible for the Peace and Justice Coalition and the Stop the War Coalition to mobilise more than the couple of hundred people who attended Sunday’s march and rally.
The Palm Sunday event has of late been moved to Parramatta. Last year's rally was organised solely by the Sydney Peace and Justice Coalition, with the Stop the War Coalition staging another (larger) event in the city. This year, in what should have been a step forward, both groups jointly organised the event. The problem is that the numbers organised by the joint committee were down on the prior year. Activists shouldn’t take this as vindication the previous split in the movement, but should instead look at the role played by left organisations in building this year's rally. More on that later. First a look at the speakers.
There were four speakers John Robertson, Secretary, Unions NSW, Susan Ryan, New Matilda Human Rights Campaign, Nosrat Hosseini, Iran Democratic Movement and, Mr Ali Bahamad, Arab Council Australia. not to detract from Ms Hosseini, the Iranian student from Melbourne who spoke well and at length about the terrible conditions in Iran. The contributions that merit focus came from Susan Ryan of New Matilda and John Robertson of Unions NSW.
New Matilda is an interesting project, not least because it places politics, what some would call high politics at the centre stage of its project. It is evidently not of the socialist left, but it does have involvement from the Fabian wing of the labour movement. The New Matilda speaker concentrated on its fight for a Human Rights Act. While the campaign for a republic should agitation for a bill of rights, we need to centre on whether a campaign for this or that act of parliament will mobilise people and shift power in relation to the existing capitalist state. The speaker spoke about Howard’s opposition being based on not wanting to increase the power of the judiciary. And well he might want to protect parliament's power vis that of a potentially more liberal bunch of judges, lawyers and hangers on. But akin to the lately beloved ‘independent umpire’ in industrial relations, this balance of forces is but a temporary and passing phase – dependent not simply on the whims of decent society (whatever that is at the moment) but on the outcome of class struggle. Today's "impartial umpire", tomorrow drives a united movement back to work, today's liberal judge tomorrow rules worker-friendly legislation illegal. While most of the left collapses into mushy economistic 35-hour-week-type politics, the fact that there is a group that places politics with a capital ‘P’ centre stage is a breath of fresh air. But their liberal schemas don’t come close to the necessary fight for the labour movement to reap a fully democratic defeat of the ruling class through a fight for a republic on the best possible terms for the working class.
In this climate, it has to be noted that New Matilda's Human Rights Act contains no right to strike. This oversight speaks volumes about the limits of this organisation's vision.
John Robertson started well, sticking to his theme on the Howard government's industrial relations legislation. In contrast to many in the union movement he didn’t simply place the blame for the legislation on an immoral or nasty John Howard, but located the actual source, big business. This is a big step forward, but to get at an accurate understanding and be able to communicate this requires another step. After Enron, HIH, executive salaries and AWB it is entirely possible to locate the blame for the woes of society on ‘Big Business’, but what this fails to do is escape from a purely moralistic argument about a bunch of fat-cat rich blokes messing up the life of ordinary people. Put simply, it sounds like it is placing class, that next step, into the centre of a political battle, while doing no such thing. It holds out the hope for nice bosses and a nice (obviously Labor) government, with a union bureaucracy sowing up nice agreements for its members under the tutelage of a nice and independent umpire. As Marxists we castigate this as airy-fairy utopianism.
The second part of Robertson’s speech was far more problematic, while at the same time showing a level of thoughtful promise that socialists need to engage with. Obviously he couldn’t deliver his usual roadshow speech; this was a Peace demonstration, not a UnionsNSW rally. So he developed the idea that the IR legislation would help create the conditions in Australia for a growth of terrorism. By any measure he is drawing a pretty long bow but with the audience on offer he seemed to get away with it.
However, Robinson’s idea quite simply doesn’t stack up. It fails to comprehend the actual source of terrorism in western society. It fails, on a simple look at who the terrorists were that committed the New York, Madrid and London outrages. These people didn’t come from a disposed sub-class weighed down by the bosses’ demand for a cut in overtime rates. The New York terrorists came from the Saudi elite, the London bombers from the product of the post-war social democratic settlement. It equates terrorism with the absence of things, a mechanical economistic abstraction, when objective facts show that the terrorist seed is germinated by alienation and helplessness in 21st century capitalist society. However, muddled we might find Robertson’s thinking, the important thing is that the comrade is doing just that – thinking. Thus far in the IR fight, the left has only managed to promote what makes each component part of the left different – this point of difference, that point of difference, this schema, that schema. We need to positively engage with workers and their leaders, and we need to point beyond the call to wait for a Beazley government.
Outside of the Labor Party and the Greens the biggest groups involved in the anti-war movement are the Socialist Alliance/DSP and the Communist Party. The Democratic Socialist Perspective and its Socialist Alliance front would normally mobilise their members and periphery for an event like this. However, smarting from yet another poor showing in the Tasmanian and South Australian elections and a failure to recruit neophytes at university Orientation Week this year, they are riven by internal arguments over their direction. With former secretary John Percy leading a significant minority, the DSP seems to have turned inwards and is fighting among itself rather than engaging with the movement and its struggles. The all too noticeable result was a single Socialist Alliance placard flapping in the breeze, one or two Green Left Weekly sellers and a couple of comrades minding the badge stall.
The lack of DSP presence also pushed up the average age of the attendees at the event. This brings us nicely to the main non-Labor left presence on the day – the CPA. It must be said that the CPA has polished its image up in the last few years; its stall had a decent range of books, with Lenin getting a well-deserved showing. The eccentric past still forces its way through and forced Lenin to share a table with four pots of homemade jam ($5) and a 1970s era Progress Publishers biography of Che Guevara (I didn’t check the price), but then this is the CPA.
The CPA comrades even managed to get placards produced with half of the slogan absolutely spot on – “Hands off Iran”, well done comrades. But in typical CPAesque fashion they managed to befuddle this by conflating it with the notion that US imperialism's presence in the Middle East is part of an oil grab. “Hands off Iran, No Blood for Oil” is a pig of a slogan – not least because in any attack on Iran, let alone the invasion of Iraq, oil plays only a secondary role. Blind Freddy can see that the US is eager to leave Iraq; their strategists hope to leave on the basis of ‘only’ a partial defeat – an absolute victory conceded as absolutely unlikely.
Any attack on Iran will be a desperate gamble by US imperialism to extricate themselves from their Iraqi quagmire. To leave now, with the current Iranian regime in place would be a geopolitical defeat for the US and greatly strengthen the Iranian regime and its adjuncts in Iraq. The job of Marxists (certainly a party that purports to be a party of Communists) is to fight for the defeat of ones own ruling class. The most obvious way of saving the people of Iran from US imperialism's next visitation of shock and awe is the immediate withdrawal of a defeated US military from Iraq. The comrades in their Buckingham Street office know this – but to state this openly would offend the quislings in the Iraqi Communist Party who continue to support the US occupation.
More importantly for ALP activists, where the hell were we? We can excuse the Socialist Alliance/DSP for its arguments over a ‘party’ that rarely manages to get above the donkey vote, we can almost forget the fogies in the CPA and their diplomatic cover for their US’s stoogies in Iraq – but we can only do this because these people and their tiny sects are peripheral to the working class, at best. The labour movement failed to rally, and for this we can only look to a vacuum in our movement and the desperate need for an active political centre based in an active, living labour movement. For socialists, the building of that movement and political centre is our most pressing task.