Marxism and religion
An open letter to Barry York and Gerard Henderson
Former Maoist, Barry York has burst into print in The Australian attacking the left for not supporting the Iraq war in an article titled Not in your name, indeed, and former secretary to B.A. Santamaria, Gerard Henderson, has laid down the law in the Sydney Morning Herald, as a kind of cultural commissar for religion, attacking most world religious leaders for not supporting the same war.
Both men have, in my view, in the past, produced some useful things. Barry York, of Maltese background, has written the definitive and useful book on Maltese in Australia, and also, a few years ago, several magazine articles that were a critical balance sheet on the Maoism of the 1960s and 1970s.
Henderson’s Mr Santamaria and the Bishops is one of the better books on the Australian Catholic Action movement. Anne Henderson, his wife, who is his partner and collaborator in the right-wing think-tank, the Sydney Institute, has published a number of useful books on migration, the experience of Catholic education and Catholic religious experience, which are workmanlike and culturally useful.
Barry York skates over the rabid Stalinism of his own Maoist current in the antiwar movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which he retrospectively idealises, and he conflates his own group’s role with the whole Vietnam War movement. Perhaps this is intended to soften his debut as the Murdoch Press’s favourite Stalinist. This is just a bit on the cute side.
The actual movement against the Vietnam War, in which I was also a vocal and energetic participant, was in fact a heterogenous and diverse popular movement. The more conservative side of it campaigned mainly for peace in general. The more leftist side of it had different strands with different views.
York’s strand in the left, predominant in Melbourne, was ferociously Stalinist, which did not stop it being quite popular. They, for instance, were enthusiastic supporters of Mao’s barbaric Cultural Revolution in China. They supported, retrospectively, the Stalinist frame-up trials of the 1930s in Russia and their particular political hero was Comrade Stalin. Thankfully, they were a distinct minority of the movement, even in Melbourne.
Another current of the left in the Vietnam antiwar movement, anti-Stalinist and “Trotskyist” socialist, was predominant on the left in Sydney. Our main emphasis in the Vietnam agitation was on the withdrawal of Australian and United States troops from Vietnam (not just peace negotiations), and self-determination for the people of Vietnam. We were, however, also a minority in the Vietnam antiwar movement, although our slogans of withdrawal and self-determination eventually prevailed in the massive Moratorium movement. The overwhelming majority of demonstrators in the 1960s and 1970s were simply against the Vietnam War.
It’s difficult to find anyone in the world now, except a few crackpot neoconservatives, who admit to being supporters of the Vietnam War when it was being fought.
The left wing of the antiwar movement I was associated with, also bitterly opposed the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. (I was arrested planting a red flag with Che Guevarra’s profile on it on the roof of the Polish Consulate in protest against the invasion.)
A lot of water has obviously flowed under the bridge since the 1960s. Barry York justifies his support for Bush’s war in classic Stalinist form, in terms of a “popular front” with George Bush against “Iraqi fascism”, and refers us to his fellow Stalinist old mate Albert Langer’s website (Last Superpower.net). I went to this website, and it was like a trip down memory lane. Most of the content was in Albert’s old Stalinist language and paradigm, with the one change that George Bush and the US neo-con government are now said to be main allies of the world’s peoples in opposing “Iraqi fascism”. Pretty weird.
(Albert’s other current fetish, widely publicised in the press, is his campaign for the legal right to encourage voters to vote informal. Many of Albert’s political activities have a slightly clownish aspect. In the 1960s this clownishness actually had a certain agitational quality, in the spirit of the times, but repeated in the 21st century it is extreme farce. People misguided enough to support Albert’s agitation for the right to encourage informal voting, ought to note that he is not voting informal in relation to Bush’s imperialist war, but supporting it energetically.)
Barry York now attempts to distinguish between the protestors of the 1960s, whom he now implies were wise and sensible, and the opponents of the Iraqi War, who he says are “the pseudo-Left, which is more akin to a subculture than a political movement: a mish-mash of Third World romanticism, pacifists, environmentalism and suspicion of progress and modernity”.
This is just humbug on Barry York’s part. This is the sort of language he and Albert Langer used against everybody else in the Vietnam antiwar movement who disagreed with them. Nothing has really changed in the public contempt that York and Langer hold for the bulk of the people on the left in Australian society. York and Langer’s sudden discovery of “progress and modernity”, is pretty rich considering the barbaric and pre-modern character of the Stalinism they have defended for more than 30 years.
Gerard Henderson’s political commissar for religion role in the media raises another aspect of current reality. Henderson chides the leaders of most world religions for not climbing on Bush’s military bandwagon, and he correctly locates the objection of many Christians to Bush’s war in the traditional Christian doctrine about the elements that make up a just war, which go back to St Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine.
One of the interesting features of all notions of just and unjust wars, Christian, liberal and Marxist, is that they have many elements in common. As both Fr Bruce Duncan, the author of the Catholic Bishops’ statement, and another authority, an Evangelical theologian at the Anglican Moore College, pointed out in a discussion paper, Bush’s war fails the test of a just war on a number of points. Henderson does not really address this question seriously, but just chides the religious leaders, really, for not being smart and lining up with the global hegemon, the US. (Barry York does much the same thing for the left and Marxists).
Henderson points to the overt religious convictions of Bush, Howard and Blair, good Christian men all, in their brutal assault on Iraq. The rather cruder Frank Devine made a similar religious reference earlier on, comparing Bush to Don John of Austria who, it is said, defeated the Turks at the battle of Lepanto, thus “saving Western Civilisation from Islam”.
When I was a kid at a Christian Brothers school in the 1950s, the culturally energetic Brothers, who gave us the useful rudiments of a classical education, taught us a lot of poetry, particularly Gerard Manly Hopkins, Francis Thompson, G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Devine’s crudeness brought back to my mind the rollicking quality of Chesterton’s poem Lepanto, with the boisterous chorus, “Don John of Austria is marching to the sea”. I tried my hand, a few weeks ago, at a caricature of that poem, which ran something like, “Don Bush of Texas is marching for the oil,” but it didn’t quite scan.
What has to be said about the religious aspect of Bush, Howard and Blair is that their religion is of the born-again” Calvinist Protestant type currently undergoing a bit of a rebirth in the Atlantic countries. It is peculiarly a type of religion appropriate to arrogant imperialist powers. Whenever I see Howard, Bush or Blair on television talking about “Christian values”, I have to shyly confess that I often snap back (only for a moment) into the Catholic medievalism of my youth and remember and spit out with venom, the wonderful line from a Hilaire Belloc poem, which runs, “The men of the new religion, with their Bibles in their boots”. In my view, the born-again Protestant fundamentalist form of religion belted out by Bush and Howard tends to enrage the rest of the human race against US, Australian and Anglo imperialism. It has no appeal at all to secular free thinkers like myself, or Catholics, civilised modernist Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and just about the whole rest of the human race, other than the couple of hundred million mainly secure middle-class English-speakers, among whom it is spread, like a noxious weed, with the vigorous support of the American state.
Henderson has the problem of trying to explain, or understand, why most world religious leaders, including His Holiness the Pope, have been so vehement in their opposition to this Iraq war. In this context, it is worth quoting the following lines from Chesterton’s Lepanto.
The Pope was in his chapel before day or battle broke,
(Don John of Austria is hidden in the smoke.)
The hidden room in man’s house where God sits all the year,
The secret window whence the world looks small and very dear.
Well, on this occasion, the Pope was in his chapel, praying not for the victory of the crusaders, but for the defeat of their Iraqi war plans. He was also mobilising the considerable diplomatic and political power of the Vatican machine against this war. One ought to concede, as Fr Duncan points out to Henderson in a dignified way in a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, the autonomy and reality of Fr Duncan’s (and the Pope’s) theological convictions on this question. This does not, however, exclude consideration of the realpolitik of the opposition of most world religious leaders to this imperialist war. They realise, particularly the Pope, who is the boss of an international religion that operates in many countries and cultures, the absolute madness in the modern world of world religious leaders climbing aboard Bush’s assault on the interests, religions and cultures of many peoples.
Barry York and Gerard Henderson both chide religious leaders for not supporting Bush’s “introduction of bourgeois democracy in Iraq”. Like them, I regard bourgeois parliamentary democracy as a better, although limited, alternative in Iraq (and most colonial and ex-Stalinist countries) to dictatorial rule. So, it is likely, do the overwhelming majority of the many millions of people who have demonstrated against the Iraq war. The reason that we don’t follow York and Henderson’s advice is that it’s absolutely clear that Bush and Howard have no organic and particular interest in introducing bourgeois parliamentary democracy anywhere. They certainly haven’t done it in Afghanistan. (Or Saudi Arabia or Israel/Palestine, or many other countries with dictatorships that are solidly supported by the US administration.)
The evidence for the bad intentions of Bush, Howard etc in Iraq is (a) their reconstruction of the police force with the hated police of Saddam Hussein, (b) their deliberate complicity in the looting and destruction of the national infrastructure and even 7000 year-old historical artefacts, (c) their clearly stated intention of postponing elections for many years, and (d) their equally clearly stated intention of installing military bases in Iraq. Some bourgeois democracy!
Now that the regime of Saddam Hussein has been overthrown in Iraq, many democratic-minded peoples of the world who have opposed the Iraq war are campaigning against Bush and Howard for real representative democracy, the right to form trade unions, free speech, etc, in Iraq. Many of us also support genuine independence for Kurdistan (including the Kurdish cities of Mosul and Kirkuk and their oil). Bush and Howard, quite clearly, for their part, are fighting for military control, bases, commercial interests and particularly for oil. Myself, being a lifelong activist in the labour movement, I share with other labour movement activists a particular interest in supporting the Iraqi people in their struggle for the right to form real trade unions, and such matters as the right to strike, which they have never had for any lengthy period in the past.
The dramatic and rapid appearance of a mass movement in Iraq, expressed in many large popular demonstrations, with slogans such as “No to Saddam, No to American Occupation”, etc, bodes well for the future of mass politics in Iraq. Civilised people in other countries should support the withdrawal of American, British and Australian troops from Iraq and immediate elections to achieve a genuinely democratic regime in Iraq.
It is quite clear that the Iraqi people will attempt to take advantage of the fall of Saddam Hussein to achieve freedom of speech, basic trade union rights, real representative institutions in the country, and it’s quite clear that the Kurds will struggle for autonomy and possibly independence.
On form, it’s highly likely that the US occupiers will do their best to prevent any of these things taking place.
Both Barry York and Gerard Henderson blackguard the members of the mass movements against the war in Iraq, and York in particular says they are misguided and stupid, not like “his generation” of protestors. Well, I participated in all the recent demonstrations in Sydney. The thing that struck me was the enormous number of people I met from the Vietnam times: Marxists, Catholics, liberals, Laborites, Greens, and their children, and their grandchildren, and they were the very significant core of the demonstration. The demonstrations, however, were vastly larger in proportion to the whole population than the Vietnam demonstrations, and much more diverse.
Henderson and York have a kind of conspiracy theory to explain the historically unprecedented, enormous size of the demonstrations against the Iraq war. They try to imply that the demonstrators are not representative of “real Australians” and were somehow corrupted by intellectual “elites”. This is a rather mysterious and non-materialist explanation, considering the extraordinary way the public culture, the newspapers and television are, in fact, now dominated by pro-war owners, and conservative news and features journalists and editorial writers.
I have a different, more materialist, explanation for the deep and widespread hostility in Australia to Bush and Howard’s war, and one more worrying for the interests that York and Henderson now support. The ethnic composition of the Australian population has changed vastly in the past 30 years. There are many more people from other cultures who live and exercise citizenship rights in Australia than the dwindling numbers who are exclusively from the previously dominant Anglo stream. The cultural level of the population is higher than it was at the start of the Vietnam War. The social and material basis for support for the narrow war of Anglo-American imperialism on the peoples of the world is far smaller in Australia than it has been in the past. The higher cultural level produces a situation where a bigger section of the population can more easily distinguish between “patriotic” rhetoric and the genuine social and economic realities in the world.
The changing ethnic composition of Australia and the higher cultural level have produced a sharp divide in Australian politics between a dwindling conservative side, the old Australia, and a rapidly growing Labor-Greens side, which includes most people of non-Anglo background, most non-believers, most people of Irish Catholic origin, most organised industrial workers, and a large part of the section of the population with tertiary education. It’s worth noting that all the polls, particularly the ones in the last week or so, since the unfolding of the military “success” of the war, show a persistence of majority antiwar sentiment among both the young and the Labor voters, despite the predictable general pro-war bounce in the polls, once the invasion actually started.
It’s highly likely that this growing Labor-Green majority in society will strongly oppose further military adventures by the US empire. The venom of Barry York and Gerard Henderson and, indeed, of a number of other journalistic pundits, whose personal origins lie on the Labor-Green-migrant-Irish Catholic side of the cultural divide in Australia, but who have crossed over to the other, Tory, declining side, is partly driven by a painful awareness that this socio-cultural divide now exists in a massive way, and that they are on the wrong side of this divide.
Postscript: Barry York’s article in The Australian was illustrated by a drawing of Mao Tse Tung carrying a placard “Liberate Iraq”. That set me thinking about how my piece might be illustrated. I came up with four figures: the Pope, with a placard saying “Not a Just War”; the Prophet Mohammed with a placard “Defeat the New Crusaders”; Leon Trotsky with a placard saying “Iraqi Workers’ Rights and Independence for Kurdistan”; and Ho Chi Minh with a placard: “Defeat the New US Imperialism. Support National Self-determination.”
April 21, 2003