Ten days in the antiwar movement in Sydney


An overview of the present stage of the struggle in Sydney against the war on Iraq, a diary of events in the antiwar movement over the six days from March 30 to April 4, some observations on the strategy adopted, particularly by the DSP, and some observations on the future of the far left in Australia after the Iraq war and the likely decline of the antiwar movement for the moment, until the outbreak of the next imperialist adventure

Bob Gould

A lot has happened over the past two or three weeks. The imperialist war on the people of Iraq hasn’t been the walkover that the imperialist powers hoped for, due to the dogged resistance of the Iraqi masses, but the overwhelming technical military superiority of the imperialist war machine, and its ruthless disregard for human life will in due course give the imperialists a tenuous military “victory”.

Such a “victory” will lead to a kind of permanent intifada in Iraq on a vastly increased scale to the Palestinian intifada, and one percipient observer in the Australian media predicts that the predicament of imperialist occupiers of Iraq will be like the predicament the Israelis got themselves into in southern Lebanon.

The past weeks have brought an immense propaganda war by the ruling class in the three countries of imperialist invasion, including Australia, and sharp, contradictory shifts in public opinion, political responses and behaviour.

The Labor Party parliamentary leadership in Australia has behaved in a contradictory way. Before the war started it voted unanimously in the federal parliament against sending troops. Since the war started a number of ALP parliamentary representatives have reiterated opposition to the war, including parliamentary leader Simon Crean, but Crean in particular has adopted a position of supporting the troops now that they’re in Iraq, while others have continued to call for withdrawal.

Due in part to the Labor Party’s general opposition to the Iraq war, the bounce in the polls towards support for the war has been far less in Australia than in either the US or Britain. According to the most reputable poll, opposition to the war is still the majority position, slightly ahead of support for the war, with some abstainers.

More significantly, the polls also show the usual age split. The very youngest age group is overwhelmingly opposed to the war, and opposition continues to be a majority position into the late forties age group, but support for the war soars among the older generations, which is always the case in imperialist wars.

The other aspect of the polls that is deeply significant (Philip Ferguson, the DSP and other philosophers who view the Tories and Laborites as equal capitalist formations, please note) is that a substantial majority of Labor voters are the core of the still-majority opposition to the war, and support for the war has soared to above 70 per cent among Tory voters.

While, with the onset of the war the turnout at demonstrations has dropped somewhat, the overwhelming majority of protesters is drawn from the Labor-Green side in electoral politics.

A packed 10 days or so

On the Monday after the commencement of the war, the Walk Against the War coalition, to which I am the delegate from the Erskineville branch of the Labor Party, met to consider the upcoming Palm Sunday rally on April 13 — the next big antiwar rally.

There was some preliminary discussion of the Palm Sunday speakers’ platform and I argued for a list that included, among others, the president of the main teachers’ union, Maree O’Halloran; newly elected NSW Greens parliamentary representative Sylvia Hale; and Carmen Lawrence, the most determinedly antiwar figure and advocate of the withdrawal of troops in the federal parliamentary Labor Party.

There was some argument about the speakers and a decision was postponed until the next meeting. I successfully moved that the committee give $250 each to the two groups engaged in organising for the high-school rally against the war on the Wednesday of that week.

The Walk Against the War coalition made a careful point that it was not, as an organisation, endorsing the student rallies because the main organising group, the DSP-influenced Books Not Bombs, was an independent organisation from the coalition, but nevertheless the coalition was willing to give a donation to Books Not Bombs to help with costs, etc.

Wednesday came along, the high-school student rally was smaller than the previous event, with 3000-5000 participants, there was a fairly substantial police mobilisation, and some rather spectacular clashes with police erupted at this event.

The turnout for this event was notable for a substantial participation of Middle Eastern youth from western suburbs high schools. They were perhaps a third of the demonstration. This is hardly surprising, since US imperialism is brutally invading the Middle East.

There is long-standing and well-known tension in the western suburbs of Sydney between the police and Middle Eastern youth, who are an alienated and rather oppressed section of Sydney society. Battles with the police erupted when the police tried to grab someone out of the Middle Eastern group for some reason, and a fine old melee followed at this point, with spectacular television footage of coppers and youth in conflict and chairs from a nearby coffee shop being thrown.

From that point on, the demonstration became a kind of city-wide running battle between youth and police, with the demonstration marching to Hyde Park and from there to the office of Prime Minister John Howard, where the police hemmed in the demonstrators.

In the course of this confused afternoon, there were a number of arrests, and arrangements previously made between the organisers and the police over routes for the march, etc, broke down for obvious reasons. Clearly, the DSP organisers, who are central in the Books Not Bombs student coalition, had not anticipated the explosive potential arising from the participation of alienated Middle Eastern youth, and their intense and immediate anger about the effect of the imperialist war on people in the Middle East.

The antagonism of the police towards the Middle Eastern youth is very public and very clear in Sydney, and is reciprocated by those youth, and this situation, and these stereotypes, are reinforced day in, day out by the demagogic tabloid hysteria of sections of the media.

A balance sheet and sequence of events

Predictably, the right-wing Labor premier of NSW, Bob Carr, strutting with the authority of his massive election victory, launched his own little ideological witch-hunt and singled out the soft target of the DSP, which he described as a Marxist-Leninist-Trotskyist group, etc, etc. In picking out a small group with little mass support, or even mass recognition, he obviously thought he was on safe ground.

The Labor Council secretary, John Robertson, obviously looking over his shoulder at his more conservative affiliates, distanced himself sharply from the demonstration, and a number of representatives of the left of the trade union bureaucracy, who don’t like the DSP anyway, and who are in fact anxious to blur over the issues raised by the vacillation on the war by ALP parliamentary leader Simon Crean (who they strenuously support in the ALP caucus), worked themselves up into a bit of a frenzy about alleged crimes of the DSP.

Initially, the response of the DSP leadership, which had clearly not anticipated the complexity of these events, was predictably erratic and incoherent. The DSP leaders’ situation was clearly a difficult one. Resistance and the DSP had some success in mobilising this initially very large high-school movement against the war, but the notion the DSP had any control over Books Not Bombs is fanciful, despite the fact that DSP and Resistance full-time organisers are at the centre of it and are the main public spokespeople.

On the day of that demonstration, when trouble erupted there were very few marshals and the organisers were relying on their authority as initiators of the demonstration to keep it under control (the official left of the trade union movement, which is obsessed by the notion of marshals, attacked the DSP constantly for not having enough marshals, but an appropriate arrangement should lie somewhere between the DSP’s absence of marshals and the trade union bureaucracy’s obsession with hundreds of marshals. Of course, this is all 20:20 hindsight on my part).

The DSP is in the difficult position that Simon Butler and Kylie Moon, the main public spokespeople of the Books Not Bombs coalition, are both DSP-Resistance full-timers, which is a lay-down misere for the tabloid red-baiters. (Resistance even had the unpleasant experience of a short-term infiltration by the youngest of the neoconservative journalistic red-baiting tribe, the Devines. One Ms Alex Devine, grand-daughter of Frank and daughter of Sydney Morning Herald columnist Miranda, didn’t find anything sinister at Resistance headquarters except a couple of Che Guevara T-shirts, but in typical familial style she beat it up into a considerable story of conspiracy.)

Initially, the DSP-Resistance leadership made a fairly substantial tactical error in the face of the developing witch-hunt. In my view, political responsibility for this error isn’t down to Simon Butler and Kylie Moon, the two youngish comrades who belted out the DSP line in the media for a couple of days, but to the DSP leadership, the dominant personality of which is now Peter Boyle. For the first couple of days it was Peter Boyle’s extravagant political line that came through.

My evidence for this Peter Boyle influence is the internal atmosphere in the DSP. The Green Left Weekly discussion site had these imperishable words, written by Boyle, referring to Workers Online, the Labor Council website:

“They are retreating a bit because they have made one big miscalculation and the real movement is going to make these CIA-inspired scabs pay big time. In the process a few fake lefties are going to be political collateral damage. Just wait and see.”

This kind of formulation about “Labor Council scabs” has been widely used internally in the DSP during the recent events, and occasionally spills over into the semi-public domain of the Green Left Weekly discussion list.

For the first couple of days, in the face of the witch-hunt, Kylie Moon and Simon Butler belted out the story that the Books Not Bombs coalition had given the authorities seven days to get out of Iraq and if this didn’t happen, the high-school students against the war would “shut down the city” (Sydney).

In passing, Books Not Bombs persisted with an unsound strategic decision, made earlier, to have a high-school demonstration for each of the following two Wednesdays, which meant having four high-school protests in quick succession. All past experience in these matters ought to have suggested this weekly frequency of high-school demonstrations was unsustainable.

There is a number of what seem to me to be fairly obvious and extremely dangerous political errors in the kind of rhetoric that came from the DSP-Resistance leadership. The first problem is that it’s extremely unwise to impose on a heterogeneous high-school agitation responsibility for a call to “shut down the city”.

Clearly, in the absence of support from other parts of society this slogan is calling on high-school students to do the impossible. That kind of rhetoric runs squarely and awkwardly in opposition to the widespread idea of a certain duty of care towards high-school students, particularly entrenched among one important group of the liberal left: school teachers.

The widespread tacit and sometimes very public support of high-school teachers for the first Books Not Bombs protests was a major factor in the success of the earlier demonstrations, but this teacher support largely evaporated as a result of the police attacks, the subsequent right-wing media campaign, and the DSP’s extravagant rhetoric.

In fact, such rhetoric is very strange from the DSP, which on most similar occasions in the past has been carefully mass-movementist and cautious. For a couple of days in March 2003, the DSP seemed as if they had become the street-fighting Maoists of the 21st century.

At one point, Simon Butler, who is in my experience quite courageous but rather mild, even asserted that Books Not Bombs would “fight to the death” for the right to demonstrate. That’s pretty alarming rhetoric when applied to the situation of the high-school movement in Australia at this time.

What really happened in those couple of days was that the DSP leadership’s over-the-top expose-Laborism rhetoric, and its overblown view of its own significance and role, burst out from the internal environment of the DSP into the public arena, where its exotic quality immediately became obvious in the face of the developing media and state witch-hunt against the students.

About Friday of that week the DSP-Resistance leadership, thankfully, dropped its ultraleft rhetoric and went back into a more sensibly defensive mode, which is what they should have done immediately the crisis erupted.

Nevertheless, the initial rhetoric underlines the DSP’s isolation in the labour movement and society. It made them, and more importantly the high-school kids they had organised, more vulnerable in the face of the witch-hunt.

Bob Gould’s six-day diary (Sunday, March 30 to Friday, April 4)

SUNDAY, March 30, was the day set down for the Walk Against the War coalition’s antiwar activists’ conference to review issues and events. Discussion at this event was dominated by the broad issues of the war and the mass mobilisation against it, and the more immediate issue of the public hullabaloo about the student protests and the conflict with the police.There were several plenaries and several slots for workshops running parallel. The turn-up was somewhat bigger than expected — more than 200 people, with quite a few from the far left, and fairly broad representation all round.

It was quite clear at this conference that some, but not all, sections of the Labor and trade union left and some, but not all, of the old Stalinists in the antiwar organisation were using the events surrounding the police attack on Books Not Bombs to conduct a witch-hunt against the students, exploiting the general unpopularity of the DSP as an organisation.

This witch-hunting tactic focusing on the DSP had only limited success at the conference.

The far left, in general, closed ranks in defence of the right of the students to demonstrate. Quite a few individuals and groups that had no reason to love the DSP leadership spoke strenuously in support of the right of the students to demonstrate on the following Wednesday, and rejected the witch-hunt.

In both plenaries far left speakers defended the students. Several school teachers also spoke up in sharp defence of the students and in sharp criticism of the organisers of the previous Books Not Bombs protest for a lack of appropriate marshalling and for the extravagant rhetoric about high school students shutting down the city. These school teachers, however, strongly defended the right of the students to march in the subsequent demonstration.

I moved around the conference energetically, arguing for groups such as the Teachers Federation and the Greens to try to defuse the conflict by taking a lead in asserting support for the right of the students to demonstrate on the following Wednesday, associating this, however, with realistic criticism of the limitations of the previous demonstration, and particularly of the “shut down the city” rhetoric.

My not-particularly-discreet agitation fell on fertile ground and both the Teachers Federation, spearheaded by Phil Bradley (a member of the Labor left); and the Greens, spearheaded by Sylvia Hale (newly elected member of the NSW Upper House), in the event decided to put resolutions in that spirit to the crisis meeting of the Walk Against the War coalition on the next evening, Monday.

I participated in a seminar at this conference on lessons of the Vietnam antiwar movement for the Iraq antiwar movement, along with John Percy of the DSP and Sylvia Hale of the Greens. I was the last speaker at the final plenary, reporting on the Vietnam session.

I said the main lesson of the Vietnam agitation was the need to concentrate on a principled, realisable objective to build a mass movement, which in both cases was withdrawal of all Australian and other imperialist troops.

I said the experience of the Vietnam movement suggested it was necessary to strike a balance between a forthright, militant wing of the movement and a more conservative wing, and it was useful to have a diverse movement in which different points of view could contend. I offered a word of warning to my comrades on the far left, loosely quoting Trotsky, that one should be on guard against the euphoria one can generate in a small room.

I noted that we had started this movement against the Iraq war on a far higher level of mobilisation than we had been able to start over Vietnam. I also noted that the broad division in society was between the overwhelming majority of Labor and Green voters, organised trade unionists, recent migrants and youth on the antiwar side, and on the pro-war side were Liberal-National coalition voters and a large section of the over-50 population, and this was a pretty healthy line of division from our point of view.

I noted that whatever errors had been made in the previous Books Not Bombs demonstration and the immediate aftermath, we ought to unite the movement against the witch-hunt and in support of the right of the students to demonstrate. There was substantial applause for this speech.

MONDAY, March 31. The crisis meeting of the Walk Against the War coalition was transferred from the Spanish Club to Room 33 in the Trades Hall, scene of many important meetings in the antiwar, labour and other movements. All sides mobilised for this crisis meeting.

There was a flurry of activity at the front of the room as new affiliates paid their money. The treasurer later joked, fairly seriously, that the coalition raised nearly $2000 in additional affiliation fees at that meeting. On one side a number of unions affiliated and on the other were a number of recently formed local antiwar committees in which the DSP and/or ISO have significant influence.

About 120 representatives of organisations squeezed into Room 33. Four resolutions were put to the meeting, one by Nick Everitt in complete support of Books Not Bombs without any criticism, another emanating from several unions attacked the previous BNB demonstration and called for cancellation of the subsequent Wednesday demonstration.
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. An 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 at the demonstration.

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.

Wednesday 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 a 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 in relation to 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.

What happens now?

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.


Tags: , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: