On Sunday evening Mick Armstrong came into my shop, as he does when he’s in Sydney, worked his way through my Marxist shelves picking up all kinds of things for his personal bookstall, which he conducts at Socialist Alternative events in Melbourne, and I gave him the usual significant discount as a pretty good customer. The arrangement suits him and it suits me, and we had the usual desultory exchange of political ideas.
I took the mickey out of him a bit for the way he has raised the notion of propagandism to high theory and I asked whether he would be willing to debate the ideas in his pamphlet on propagandism some time, and he said he would.
Mick was in Sydney for what has been billed on posters around Sydney as his national tour, along with a comrade from a small socialist group in Italy.
The next day I read the rather unpleasant and totally reactionary opinion piece in The Australian by the former editor of Australian Left Review, David Burchall, pouring hostility all over the events of May 1968 and the generation of 1968, of which I’m one.
That tipped the balance, and I decided to go to Mick’s meeting and have a bit of a look at Socialist Alternative on its home ground. I thought I might also have my five minutes or so of discussion from the floor on the issues raised by May 1968 and the events of the whole period from 1965 to 1972, during which I was a rather energetic participant and was arrested about nine times, mainly for demonstration offences, but also over censorship matters. (Incidentally, it seems I’m going to get 10 minutes of interview time on the current censorship upheaval, related to the past, on the James Valentine Show on ABC Radio around 1pm on Wednesday, May 28.)
Sydney people know that I can usually squeeze a pretty good argument into five minutes from the floor at any meeting, and I was confident I’d be able to put forward a bit different slant to Mick.
When I got to the meeting I was favourably impressed by the size and composition of the audience. The small meeting room in the Newtown Neighbourhood Centre contained about 55 people a fair proportion of them apparently first-year university students, and they included a fair sprinkling of people of colour. I hadn’t seen most of the crowd before, even in Socialist Alternative red flag contingents at demonstrations, and I don’t really expect to see a lot of them again, due to the revolving door nature of Socialist Alternative membership and recruitment.
No other socialist groups were present that I recognised and there was one bloke who I know pretty well: a syndicalist cab driver who, unusually, is also a Labor Party member.
The meeting kicked off with a report for a minute or two by a rather gloomy looking bloke I’ve seen around Socialist Alternative, who it emerges is a school teacher. He reported on Socialist Alternative’s intervention at the recent teachers’ stopwork meeting, claiming that the group had sold 75 copies of the Socialist Alternative magazine at the stopwork (long experience has taught me to discount claimed sales at such events by about half) and he explained that the group had told the teachers how the Labor Party betrayed.
The thing that struck me as curious was that he at no stage explained what the teachers’ dispute was about. One might think that for the education of the comrades some knowledge of the dispute might have been useful. In Socialist Alternative’s unimaginative world, that’s apparently not important, only the number of magazine sales.
The Italian speaker went on for about 40 minutes, which was a bit on the painful side, as he wasn’t very fluent in English and his political conclusions seemed pretty obscure. At the end of his speech he got dutiful explosive applause, led from the platform.
Then Mick spoke, also for about 40 minutes. His speech was reasonably rousing, although pretty general and he didn’t really make any serious observations about the strategic and tactical issues for Australia posed by the events of May 1968 and 1969, other than very general ones.
Mick himself is a rather unlikely candidate for the role of cult leader, but in a way he has clearly become one, which has got me beat a bit. He got uproarious applause.
Then the chair of the meeting gave a little package of Socialist Alternative books to the Italian comrade as a memento and the meeting was closed.
To say the least, I was gobsmacked. That was partly personal irritation, being the only person present who had been a reasonably significant participant in the events of that time in Australia, but the personal insult was not the most important point. What got under my skin politically was the graphic way, demonstrated at that meeting, a propaganda group actually operates in the rounded way that Mick theorises in his recent pamphlet.
A discussion of May 1968, which was a rolling, global revolutionary event, marked by popular assemblies, and an enormous clash of ideas, strategic conceptions and a whole ferment of argument and debate, can’t be reduced to a totally ritualised formulaic meeting.
Socialist Alternative is turning into a political replica of the Hillsong Church. It is propagandism gone totally loopy – a hermetically sealed world from which serious argument appears to be excluded.
It’s possible that, had I not been there, the meeting might have had some fairly controlled discussion, but from the meeting organisers’ point of view my presence seems to have precluded that. That little universe is clearly so tense that the presence of even one socialist outsider sends the little hive into total defence mode.
I got up at the back of the meeting and said surely they couldn’t have such a farcical performance without a discussion and I repeated my point loudly as I left.
Two young women followed me into the street and one, possibly speaking for the other one, said she had been to a few Socialist Alternative meetings and they were all pretty much like that. She shook her head in amused disbelief. She said she recognised me as “the bloke from the bookshop” and volunteered that she had read my critique of Socialist Alternative on the web and she agreed with my view.
Despite the fact that I’m writing this in a mood of exasperation and irritation, I’m also rather glad that I attended the meeting because I have the very distinct feeling that I got an very good view of the kind of protracted moment that Socialist Alternative is going through as it transforms from a socialist group into a kind of cult with a most unlikely cult leader.
I repeat my offer to Mick. Why don’t we set up some kind of public discussion or debate on, say, a whole Sunday afternoon, and discuss the merits or demerits of socialist propagandism as a system, with all comers invited.
Tags: Socialist Alternative