Flag burning as tactic and publicity stunt


The new DSP leadership’s formula for building a mass socialist movement: mass burning of Australian flags

Bob Gould

Green Left Weekly discussion list, February 21, 2006

The most spectacular political initiative from the leadership of the DSP, under general secretary Peter Boyle, is an eccentric political stunt by the DSP youth organisation Resistance, to sell Australian flag burning kits on every Australian campus during Orientation Week, by implication encouraging the mass burning of the national flag. It would be easy to dismiss this initiative as a dopey student prank, but as it’s clearly sponsored by the new DSP leadership it’s rather more than that.

The obvious short term intention is to attempt to outbid the Socialist Alternative in ultraleft rhetoric on the campuses. Socialist Alternative has been considerably more successful in its student work than Resistance, which is at its weakest point ever in the 40-year history of the DSP tendency. This initiative also possibly has significance in the internal factional struggle in the DSP because it obviously involves a question of perspectives for the socialist movement, and an estimate of what kind of political circumstances face the left in Australian society.

The two current major DSP theorists, the newly elected general secretary Boyle and his ally Dave (Ratbag Radio) Riley have tried to defend this peculiar initiative and give it a theoretical gloss. Boyle’s argument is the most shonky from a Marxist point of view. He suddenly gets very wise about the significance of various national flags, and in replying to the American Walter Lippman who expresses disquiet about the strategic implications of burning the national flag, claims that the Australian national flag is far less popular in Australia than the US national flag is in the US, and that anyway its sometimes used as a symbol by extreme right wingers.

Big news that: that rightists wrap themselves in the national flag. Boyle then gets very wise indeed, and says that anyway, in the labor movement, the flag that’s popular is the Eureka flag. He’s having himself on a bit about that. The main proponents of the Eureka flag in Australia in recent times were the Maoists in the 1970s and 1980s, who associated it with an exaggerated Australian nationalism versus US, Russian and British imperialism in whichever order the current Maoist political line then dictated — it changed several times. In those days the DSP quite validly used to polemicise against that sort of Australian nationalism. The Eureka flag has also been used extensively by the same fascists who also from time to time wrap themselves in the existing Australian flag.

All of this underlines the moveable feast that flags, nationalism and national identity usually are. When I was a kid at a Catholic school in the 1950s, Catholic schools used to make a bit point of singing Advance Australia Fair and flying the Australian flag as did the labour movement, when official Australian society wrapped itself in the Union Jack and sang God Save the Queen. That was the cultural fault line in Australian society for most of the 20th century. (Eddie Truman from Scotland has chimed into the debate on the Green Left discussion site supporting Boyle by pointing out that burning the Union Jack is pretty popular in Scotland.

This is irrelevant to the question of burning the Australian flag in Australia. Burning the Union Jack in Scotland is popular because the Union Jack is not the flag with which the Scottish masses identify, but the flag of the historic English occupier. The same applies in Ireland. The Irish tri-colour is the national flag of the Irish masses, particularly in Northern Ireland. The Union Jack is the flag of the British imperial conqueror, and is still the flag of the imperial occupier in Northern Ireland. These two cases of Ireland and Scotland are quite different to the situation in Australia.

Boyle’s assertion that the Australian flag is unpopular in Australia compared with the US is highly problematic. The Australian flag is accepted by the overwhelming majority of the population as the national flag and as in some way embodying the notion of Australian national identity. Australians are after all a nationality, not a race. Boyle and Riley may not choose to notice this, but many hundreds of thousands of recent migrants take out Australian citizenship every year, including hundreds of thousands from Third World countries, by and large for very practical reasons. They tend to immediately wrap themselves in Australian citizenship and their new nationality, while also in most cases preserving something of their original nationality as well. This involves acceptance of the Australian national flag. (This often dual identity in migrant communities is one of the factors that underpins the multiculturalism defended by the labour movement, and rejected by the more right-wing forces in Australian society, and also rejected in a more “leftist” way by the DSP leadership.)

It’s worth noting in this context that one unwise and unfortunate Lebanese youth is already doing time for allegedly nicking an Australian flag and burning it. (Sticking this flag burner in jail, when racists who on the face of it bashed people of “Middle Eastern appearance” are out on bail, underlines the racial inequity of the Australian legal system.) The significant point about this incident is, however, that all the important leaders of the Lebanese community, including the leftist ones, have publicly done everything in their power to try to persuade Lebanese youth, so far quite successfully, to cool it and avoid provocative acts such as flag burning.

Along come the Boylites

As a “theoretician” Boyle is the source of a longstanding proposition that Australia is a thoroughly racist country from its inception until now, and that the modern working class is also pretty racist.

This overarching theory of Boyle’s is an absurdity and takes no account at all of the major changes in the ethnic composition of the Australian population and particularly the working class. It suits Boyle and company down to the ground in terms of their false sociology to take this entirely artificial flag burning initiative.

They obviously hope that a stunt like this, initiated by their largely Anglo youth group, may revive its flagging fortunes. The fact that one group that might just respond to such an initiative is some Lebanese youth, who might well get themselves into considerable trouble, seems on the face of it irrelevant to Boyle and company. What’s more important to them is to stir up, if they can, some kind of witch-hunt, which will give Resistance publicity, which consideration is underlined by the excited way Boyle and company publicise a bit of a fuss made by Channel 7, the RSL and one right-wing website.

They are clearly hoping it might build up into something. A more likely development is that the students in Orientation Week at whom this pseudo-agitation is ostensibly directed, will be mildly irritated or amused, depending on their temperament, and regard it as some kind of Chaser-like political theatre.

The question of perspective

Anyone who reads the two sets of opposing documents from the DSP’s recent discussion can’t avoid noticing the difference in perspective between the defeated Percy group and the Boyleite majority.

The Percy groups make an unanswerable case that the present period in Australia is not as one of mass radicalisation. The Boyleites, against all the evidence, talk as if a mass radicalisation is either in the offing, or in some sense has already commenced. Even if a mass radicalisation had commenced, an artificial agitational assault on the national flag, and the national identity that tends to go with it, would be an ultraleft adventure, and would tend to play into the hands of reaction.

In the rather conservative and defensive political climate for the working class that we are actually in, this kind of tactic is poisionous. What’s required in current Australian conditions is the maximum united front of the working class and the progressive sections of the middle-class and the labour movement, and the socialist groups to mobilise against the industrial laws of the Howard Government, and to rebuild a movement against the Iraq War, both difficult tasks.

In this context the Boyleites’ flag-burning stunt is a rather subtle piece of ultraleftism. The aim is to draw the sharpest possible line between whoever is unwise enough to respond to the flag burning initiative and the overwhelming majority of the left in Australian society who think flag-burning tactics are silly, whatever they might think about the Australian flag.

The intention also is to use the weight of the DSP leadership to further isolate the Percy group and to make a few more recruits to the Boyle side on the basis of primitive ultraleftism. This rather strange initiative may not in fact have the useful results for the Boyle group that it hopes for.

A historical note

Back in 1968, when the opposition to the Vietnam War had, due partly to our efforts, broken out of the left ghetto, and a real rising arc of mass radicalisation had commenced, John Percy, Jim Percy and I took the initiative for reproducing a humorous pamphlet with serious intent, called How Not to Join the Army, and J. Percy put his name on it.

This was quite a calculated political act on our part, but it has to be stressed that it was in the context of a rising arc of radicalisation. We got raided by the Federal Police for the pamphlet and we got enormous publicity that was useful for building the movement.

The point was, that pamphlet and the agitation surrounding it was in no sense artificial. Conscription was at its height and the question of what to do when conscripted faced tens of thousands of young men and their families and friends. The pamphlet and its message was radical, but printing it was an agitational punt well worth taking.

At the same time as this, in our agitation in the broad antiwar movement, we tried to influence the labour movement fairly successfully around the slogan of withdrawing Australian and other imperialist troops from Vietnam.

We quite consciously avoided gratuitous stunts such as burning Australian flags, which was more the territory of people like the Maoists. We made a few tactical errors from time to time, one of which was the initial name of the youth group, Screw (Society for Cultivating Revolution Everywhere). We recovered from those kind of errors (and there were others) pretty quickly.

Those interested in these historical matters of strategy in the anti-war movements in imperialist countries should read John Percy’s History of the DSP and Resistance, Barry Shepherd’s book The Party, and my sharply critical articles about both books, as well as my articles about various aspects of the Vietnam antiwar campaign.

Peter Boyle and Machiavelli

February 23, 2006

Is the pressure of his new job getting to Peter Boyle?

Boyle seems to feel a need to make us aware that he reads Machiavelli, perhaps like Tony Soprano, the Mafia boss in The Sopranos, who studies Machiavelli to get some hints on controlling his capos.

Well, the first thing to be said about Machiavelli is that he wrote his book for princes, the rulers of states. Has Boyle flipped in the importance of his new job? Does he think he runs a state?

Lenin also read Machiavelli a bit, but of course Lenin ended up becoming a leader, along with Trotsky, of a state.

That was partly a result of the ripe objective circumstances of the collapse of the Tsarist empire. It was also a result of the utmost care that Lenin and Trotsky devoted to strategy and tactics in the revolutionary process.

There’s not much evidence in Boyle’s political practice of the kind of attention to strategy and tactics practised by Lenin.

What’s of some interest is the section from Machiavelli that Boyle chooses to belt out at his readers. It’s the section in which Machiavelli says a ruler should prefer being feared to being loved, and should be ruthless to ensure that he is feared.

As the person this message is addressed to, thankfully Boyle can’t do much to me. Who else is he trying to warn? His internal opponents, perhaps?

For all his ability to quote Machiavelli, Boyle doesn’t try to address the strategic questions involved in the flag-burning stunt, although he was quite voluble about them a few days ago in his exchange with Walter Lippman.

It verges on the farcical when Alan Bradley says Boyle has nothing to do with the flag burning stunt, and Stuart Munckton says to blame him and the Melbourne branch of Resistance.

Boyle wasn’t so keen to keep his distance a few days ago.

Maybe he can strut his stuff a bit more in response to this modest post and quote some more bits of Machiavelli at us.


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