Bill Leak (1956-2017) – ‘waking up with a roaring fatwa’

“It’s a strange world when the most conservative people on earth call themselves ‘progressives’ and no one bats an eyelid” – email from Bill Leak, 4-10-15

“These people are trying to take us down the road to fascism. It might be nice, PC, inclusive, compassionate, non-gender specific smiley-face fascism but it’s still fascism” – email from Bill Leak, 30-10-16

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marx cartoon - Bill Leak

I had the privilege of becoming one of Bill Leak’s friends. We corresponded, sometimes in substantial emails, and chatted by phone. We never met, but wanted to.

I did not agree with all his cartoons, needless to say, but defended his right to express his views via his excellent technical skills, brilliant intellect and wit, powerful way with words and awesome imagination. In terms of political philosophy, I had very little in common with those on the Right who supported him – other than a shared, stated, commitment to free speech.

And I didn’t agree when he would use the term ‘the Left’ to assail his opponents. It was understandable that he would regard the censorious reactionary creeps who John Pilger and Andrew Bolt both agree are ‘the Left’ as actually constituting some kind of left. After all, where is the alternative – a genuine Left – in public discourse? But I managed to point out to him that the Left is not defined by self-labelling, or by the right-wing media, or by some dogmatic formula into which reality is forced, but rather by long-established values and theory, and politics based on the ever-changing real world.

In an article Bill wrote defiantly for ‘The Australian’ after being summoned before the Human Rights Commission, he again attacked ‘the Left’. I emailed him, arguing that “such types have nothing in common with Marx’s rebellious spirit, let alone revolutionary political philosophy, and the term ‘pseudo-left’ and ‘faux-Marxists’ needs to be popularised”.

Bill’s response:

“Thanks SO much, Barry. If ONLY I’d spoken to you while writing it. I squirmed in my chair for a fortnight but couldn’t come up with the terms pseudo left and faux-Marxists and now it’s too late”.

 

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Our contact began when I wrote to him, three or four years ago, to congratulate him on an excellent cartoon in ‘The Australian’, attacking a union boss who had been dog-whistling about ‘foreign workers’. As a leftist influenced by Marxism, I knew there was no such thing as foreigners when it came to the working class. I told Bill. He agreed.

Foreign workers’ cartoon… (112 years) after Livingston Hopkins… 

 Bill Leak cartoon - foreign workers - cropped

 

He had an indomitable sense of humour and wit. Early in 2015, when very serious death threats were made against him by Islamo-fascists, he had to uproot his family and move house and studio at short notice, and adopt a false name. Armed protection had to be arranged for him and his family. His crime had been to portray a figure in a cartoon that resembled Muhammad. It was not gratuitous stuff, but a response to the murder of cartoonists in France.

“Je suis Charlie’. Remember?

Bill’s response to me, in an email was:

“In much the same way that it takes a bit of time before you can laugh at tragedies, it might still take a while before Goong [his wife] and I can laugh about all this upheaval. I feel pretty sure though that it won’t be long before I’ll be able to say, “You remember that day when I woke up with a roaring fatwa? Best thing that ever happened for both of us.”

He continued:

“It is of course galling to read the letters in the paper from people “daring” me to “dare” to draw a cartoon that may offend Muslims in the way Saturday’s cartoon appears to have offended some of the more humourless Christians. It’s not as if I can write a letter myself, demanding they go back and check the cartoon from January 10. I’d love to tell them it resulted in me having to find a new home and live under an assumed name because the people I’d “offended” wanted to square things up by tracking me down and cutting my head off but, for obvious reasons, the less people know about it the better.

 

“Right now the thing that worries me most is the prospect of discovering I’m being targeted by Evangelical Christians, wanting to turn up at my place in a mini-bus and stand around on the front lawn strumming guitars and singing songs at me.

“One fatwa at a time, please!”

 

State censorship and the spirit of ’68…

As someone radicalised in the 1960s, who still regards 1968 as the Left’s finest year and high point internationally, I saw in Bill’s spirit and many of his cartoons the long-lost spirit of that year: its irreverence, rebelliousness, defiance and challenge to the dominant ideology (what we today call ‘Political Correctness’ – yes, it was around back then but in an openly right-wing form).

Much of the censorship back then was undertaken by the state under the guise of clamping down on obscenity. There was an Obscene Publications Act, which banned art and writings that members of a Vice Squad regarded as sufficiently pornographic for them to physically remove them from bookshops. If a magistrate shared the Vice Squad’s view, then the literature was banned.

Publications exposing US war crimes in Vietnam were also banned under the Obscene Publications Act. At high school, I unlawfully distributed the banned pamphlet, ‘US atrocities in Vietnam’ (I think it was called that, from memory).

The attempt at state intimidation and censorship that Bill Leak experienced, and fought, was undertaken via ‘human rights’ legislation: the Racial Discrimination Act. Go figure. And see the Appendix below for Bill’s email of 30-10-16 as to why and how the cartoon sought to support Indigenous people in remote communities and was not racist.

Every society has a dominant sense of what is right and wrong, what is fair comment and what is going too far, but the real question concerns the parameters as set down by the state, by official censorship.

That action could be taken against a cartoonist in the C21st by an arm of the state – and let’s not be coy about it, that’s what the Human Rights Commission is – showed that the parameters are way too broad and censorious. Even the Greens Senator, Nick McKim, stated on national television that he felt Bill’s controversial ‘Dear old dad’ cartoon was exempt under Section 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act (which basically exempts on the grounds of ‘fair comment’).

‘Dear old dad’ cartoon…

leak dear old dad

Bill tapped into a mood of resentment on the part of many people who grew sick and tired of being smugly admonished by their finger-prodding ‘betters’ in the Establishment that they should not do this or that, or think ‘like that’. This is not to suggest that those feeling resentment are always right, they are not, but the culture of Political Correctness has made nuance almost impossible. You either toe the line entirely or you are racist and any variety of ‘phobe’. There is little room in this culture for debate, for the open clash of conflicting ideas. In this context, ‘Being offended’ has become an argument – a case for opposition to something – rather than just a subjective feeling.

Punching up… at the cultural establishment

Those who accused Bill of ‘punching down’ have it upside down. His cartoons in the main were actually punching up, challenging those at the top, the decision-makers, those with great and sometimes dominant influence in the media, the senior bureaucracy, bourgeois academia, the ‘aristocracy of labour’ (or ‘union bosses’ as we described them in the communist party) and mainstream politicians of all stripes who, in general, prefer to deny or obfuscate life-threatening problems and restrict civil liberties. It takes a weird sense of victimhood – a denial of human agency – to see it the other way ‘round.

No other mainstream cartoonist so incisively mocked the Green quasi-religion. His ‘Christine Milne’ sitting self-righteously with the fairies at the bottom of the garden, in vivid unreal technicolour, was among my favourites.

Green fairies at the bottom of the garden…

leak milne

No other cartoonist so effectively challenged economic protectionism. None so willingly revealed the absurdity of all the religions, including the quasi-religious totalitarian impulses of the reactionary pseudo-left. None so courageously stood up to the current brand of ‘clerico-fascism’.

He will be best remembered for his defence of free speech. He stood up to fascists, at great personal cost. To me, regardless of the cartoons with which I disagreed, those qualities make him a cultural hero.

I’m devastated by his death, and disgusted by the attacks he endured from what passes for ‘the left’ today, by the state and by Islamo-fascists.

Bill, thank you for your work, and for having me as a friend. And for your spirit, the best long-term hope for which is the revival of a genuine left.

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Appendix:

 

Bill’s email of 30-10-16 on why his ‘Dear old dad’ cartoon was not racist:

Sorry I didn’t reply to your previous email that arrived just a few days after I received news I was about to be hauled before the Inquisition. Since then I’ve discovered drawing cartoons and fighting the dark forces of tyranny at the same time is bloody hard work and doesn’t leave me with much time to spare for writing emails.

I have to give my cartoons names when I put them up on the website and the name I gave the one that’s caused all this latest trouble was “Dear Old Dad”. Well, dear old dad is having one hell of an impact. I hoped it would prompt people to take a good, hard look at the plight of aboriginal kids in remote communities but it seems that’s something so confronting they prefer not to look at it at all. So much easier to accuse me of racism for having brought the subject up. It’s pleasing to see, though, that finally the virtue signallers are running out of abuse to hurl at me and the conversation is starting to focus on the little boy in the middle of it and his indescribably sad, desperate life. The cartoon was supposed to be about him after all, for Christ’s sake. Col Dillon (Anthony’s father) [both of Indigenous ancestry] rang me on the morning of the day it was published to thank me and congratulate me for doing it. He knew what I was trying to say and knowing he was glad to see I’d tried to say it clearly was good enough for me. 

I grew up in a place in the bush called Condobolin among aboriginal kids. When I went back there in 2001 (for the first time in over 30 years) it was depressing to see how much worse things were for the indigenous people than they were in the 60s. Intergenerational welfare dependency is like a slow working poison. Killing with kindness is just the ticket I suppose if, deep down, what you really want to do is discreetly eradicate a population while simultaneously parading your compassion and telling everyone how much you care.

To tell you the truth I had no idea dear old dad would also trigger a debate on 18C, let alone that I’d end up at the pointy end of a battle to get it amended or (dare I hope) repealed. Two shitfights for the price of one! Perhaps by now Southpommasane and Triggs might be regretting they decided to try to rid themselves of this turbulent cartoonist. But they did, and I’m going to fight like buggery. It’s just as well I like a blue, Barry.

These people are trying to take us down the road to fascism. It might be nice, PC, inclusive, compassionate, non-gender specific smiley-face fascism but it’s still fascism. And if that’s where we end up the Triggses and Southpossums and all their fellow members of ‘the new monocled top-hatted elite who hold the workers in disdain for their consumerism’ won’t know what hit them. – Bill Leak, 30-10-16

leak bob dylan

 

Notes on Trump (by Arthur Dent)

“If there was a left, we would be in a good position to finally rid ourselves of the pseudo-left who can be shown to espouse essentially the same anti-globalist and isolationist ideas as Trump. But in order for there to be a left, we have to be able to present a coherent economic program that explains how to unleash the productive forces of a globalized world for the benefit of the majority who only work here rather than primarily for the owners”.

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Arthur Dent – Thursday 2017-01-19

Even if I had a deep understanding of US and world politics and economics I could not hope to figure out what’s happening at the moment. We are at an important turning point in multiple processes, many of them dependent on unknowable contingencies.

But here’s an outline of some aspects that mass media analysts don’t seem to get.

The big event was Trump beating the entire Republican establishment as a complete outsider in a hostile takeover. Most attention has been directed at the subsequent defeat of the Democrats and the wailing and gnashing of teeth from their celebrities and media. But the situation on the Republican side is far more interesting.

Instead of splitting they have jointly celebrated defeating the Democrats and appear to have successfully formed a united administration. Both sides are indeed glad to be rid of the Democrat administration and can work together for reduced taxes, less regulation and some other points of agreement. It is also quite traditional for Republicans to accept budget deficits as long as they are not funding a Democrat administration. But the fact remains, President Trump has no party in Congress. They despise him and are cooperating only because they fear him.

Trump’s focus is on building his own party. If he had lost the primaries he looked like running as a third party (which he tried to do decades ago). If he had won the primaries but lost the election he would still have been at war with the Republican establishment, who could reasonably be accused of having treacherously helped the Democrats to win by attacking their own candidate. Having won, without any help from most of the Republican establishment he is now in a much stronger position to actually take over their party. If he doesn’t, they will find a way to get rid of him.

All members of the House of Representatives and one third of Senators come up for election in two years, together with State legislatures and governors. The mid-term primaries start in a year. Trump’s campaign organization has databases with more than 10 million email addresses and 2 million donors. Trump’s campaign more than doubled the numbers voting in Republican primaries (many of them former Democrats). Usually only small numbers participate in mid-term primaries and they are mainly mobilized by actual party activists – especially cronies of the local incumbents.

If Trump can keep his base mobilized over the next two years he will end up with a large party in Congress (and in the States) whether or not the Democrats regain majorities.

The media and celebrities are still helping by denouncing him as a deplorable outsider. That’s exactly what he wants to keep his base mobilized. He won because so many people are utterly sick of politically correct plastic insiders.

As far as I can make out the media actually do not get this. It is plausible that when they gave him enormous amounts of free publicity in the primaries they were consciously intending to help him beat the other candidates so that the Republicans would nominate a grotesquely deplorable candidate who would lose the election. But they actually seem to think it really matters that he has become more unpopular since the election under their onslaught. His popularity among Republican voters is what matters for the primaries and he is not harmed at all by attacks from media and celebrities.

So here’s one possible sequence of events.

Congress approves a fairly large infrastructure stimulus program and deficit as well as funding construction of a secure southern border and improved healthcare. Republican defectors would be outnumbered by Democrat collaborators.

Together with tax cuts and deregulation this has the expected effect of increasing GDP growth and thus jobs and wages at least in the short term. If Trump actually launched trade wars that could produce the opposite effect, even in the short term. But he can start lots of trade disputes that build momentum against globalism without actually initiating a trade war.

So Trump will be seen as having delivered. Many of his opponents will be removed in the primaries.

Hispanic hostility and Democrat mobilization against Trump’s immigration program won’t have much impact on Republican primaries since few Hispanic voters would register as Republicans. But this issue could win seats for Democrats at the midterm elections.

Assuming the Democrats get their act together and stop carrying on the way they are at the moment, they should be able to mount a serious campaign to win back majorities in the House and Senate at the midterm elections. But to do so they would presumably go with Trump’s trade policies, denouncing him for having not gone far enough. After all Bernie Sanders was a serious challenger to Hilary Clinton with protectionist policies (and against open borders) and Clinton actually announced opposition to the TPP in response. Arguably he could have defeated Trump.

So the result in two years could be that the US has shifted from a two party system in which both parties support globalism to a two party system in which both parties oppose globalism. If there was a Democratic majority their obstruction could be blamed for any economic decline that set in after two years.

In three years or so Trump could announce that the border was now secure enough to offer a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants without risk of encouraging more. That could produce a significant hispanic vote for a President that had actually delivered rather than merely attempted comprehensive immigration reform.

A major world economic crisis could break out at any time. I would be surprised if it was postponed for another 8 years. So I would also be surprised if an authoritarian demagogue was not President of the USA when it does break out.

The collapse of the old parties and their plastic politicians extends far beyond the USA. Lots of people are being drawn into thinking about politics for the first time. Their first thoughts are abysmally stupid and make them vulnerable to demagogues spouting nationalism and nativism. But many will end up thinking more deeply now that they have begun thinking.

If there was a left, we would be in a good position to finally rid ourselves of the pseudo-left who can be shown to espouse essentially the same anti-globalist and isolationist ideas as Trump. But in order for there to be a left,we have to be able to present a coherent economic program that explains how to unleash the productive forces of a globalized world for the benefit of the majority who only work here rather than primarily for the owners.

Freedom from want and toil – and the capitalist social revolution

From the Communist Manifesto Project‘s pamphlet: Rescuing the Message.

 

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Freedom from want and toil

The industrial revolution that began over two centuries ago is transforming the material conditions of life in ways that make capitalism obsolete. In the most developed regions of the world it is providing something approaching a modest level of material abundance and removing much of the necessary toil from work. These conditions make it possible to contemplate social ownership where the motivation is no longer profit, or some reward derived from it, but rather mutual regard and the satisfaction obtained from labor.

At the moment, the rich countries are home to only 15-20 per cent of the world’s population. However, the middle income countries such as China, India, Mexico, Turkey and Brazil could well achieve high levels of development over the next two or three generations, while the poorer half of the world should catch up later this century or early in the next. The pace of development will depend on a range of factors including the prevalence of political crises, wars and economic depressions.

With increasing productivity under capitalism, a stage is reached where an equal share of the social product ceases to be shared poverty. Under less developed conditions, the prospect of shared hunger and distress impels those who are in a position to do so to exploit others through plunder, slavery, serfdom or the ownership of the means of production. However, as the average share begins to promise an increasing degree of prosperity, the imperative to fare better than others diminishes. Marx and Engels make this point in part II, section 5 of The German  Ideology:

… this development of productive forces … is an absolutely necessary practical premise, because without it privation, want is merely made general, and with want the struggle for necessities would begin again, and all the old filthy business would necessarily be restored …

Under developed capitalism, mechanization and automation have done much to reduce the odious or toilsome nature of work. Pick and shovel work and carrying heavy loads are things of the past and much of the remaining menial and routine work in the manufacturing and service sectors will be automated in the next generation. The work we are left with will be primarily intellectual in nature and potentially interesting and challenging.

“With increasing productivity under capitalism, a stage is reached where an equal share of the social product ceases to be shared poverty.”

Some doubt the ability of workers to keep up with the requirements of the new work. Certainly capitalism leaves a lot of workers behind and on the scrap heap. Nevertheless, the level of training of workers is higher than ever and should increase over time. In developed countries about a quarter of young proletarians graduate from university and a similar proportion have other forms of training.

We can also expect improved ability to perform complex work in a future communist society as many of the conditions that cause stunted development are eliminated. These include lack of family support, peer pressure to under-perform and an inadequate education system. Social ownership will end the isolation of education from production and other activities, so uniting learning and doing. Workers will help each other to learn. We will also benefit from an increasing understanding of human development and what causes learning difficulties. And over the longer term we can expect to see artificial improvements through mind-enhancing drugs, genetic engineering (induced evolution) and brain link-ups to computers.

The Capitalist Social Revolution

The dominance of capitalist market relations brings a social as well as an industrial revolution. The outcome is frightful in many ways but vastly better than what it replaces. In particular, the revolution casts off many ancient shackles and replaces them with weaker capitalist ones.

Proletarians are employees not slaves or serfs. As wage workers they only have a contractual arrangement for part of the day with their capitalist master and are free to move from one job to another. Their boss, unlike the peasants’ lord, is probably not the local political chief or magistrate.

Their position in the labor market also frees them from subordination to the extended family, tribe or local community. It provides economic independence and the opportunity to physically escape from these sources of oppression and conservatism.

“Their position in the labor market also frees them from subordination to the extended family, tribe or local community. It provides economic independence and the opportunity to physically escape from these sources of oppression and conservatism.”

The new market-based class relations also raise women from their age old subordinate position. The nuclear family replaces the extended family as the economic unit so that women only have to deal with their freely chosen husband and not his relatives. Then comes the independence of employment for a wage. The changing conditions plus struggles by women lead to the removal of legal discrimination, new divorce laws and various forms of government child support. Even the nuclear family becomes optional. These changes cut away much, although not all, of the legacies of women’s oppression and create the conditions where men and women can begin to understand their differences and similarities, and better meet their mutual needs.

The emergence of capitalism has been accompanied by the bourgeois democratic revolution that brings equality before the law, freedom of speech and assembly, due process and constitutional rule. People now expect these political conditions and feel aggrieved by their absence. They could not imagine being ruled by the bejewelled thugs of earlier times. This provides space for the proletariat to organize itself and for a revolutionary movement to emerge and develop. Although when the capitalists feel sufficiently threatened they dispense with these arrangements. This may involve goons and death squads, a state of emergency,  a military coup or the coming to power of a fascist tyrant. However, such drastic measures cannot permanently put the genie back in the bottle and they are bound to provoke resistance.

Overcoming both submissive and oppressive behavior will be at the core of the struggle for communism.  Individuals will require the boldness to stand up to people who act in a harmful manner either to them or to others, while expecting other people to submit to you is completely at odds with a culture of mutual regard. Overcoming the submissive and oppressive forms of behavior found under capitalism will prove difficult enough. Having to at the same time overcome their far more extreme pre-capitalist forms would be unimaginably difficult.

The experience of constant flux experienced under capitalism is also important for communism. Pre-capitalist societies are static. The way of life in your old age is the same as that in your youth. In keeping with this there are set and unchanging ways of thinking and general acceptance of how things are. Under capitalism there is constant change and increasing uncertainty in the conditions of life and the prevailing ways of thinking. It then becomes possible for people to look at where they are and where they are going. This is expressed well in The Communist Manifesto as follows:

All fixed, fast-frozen relationships, with their train of venerable ideas and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become obsolete before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face with sober senses the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men.

How the Syrian revolution has transformed me (Budour Hassan)

The following is reprinted from Budour Hassan’s blog Random Shelling.

Comments welcome.

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The world revolves around Palestine, or so I thought until 2011.

The Palestinian cause, I argued, was the litmus test for anyone’s commitment to freedom and justice. Palestine was the one and only compass that must guide any Arab revolution. Whether a regime is good or bad should be judged, first and foremost, based on its stance from the Palestinian cause. Every event should somehow be viewed through a Palestinian lens. The Arab people have failed us, and we inspired the entire world with our resistance.

 

Yes, I called myself internationalist. I claimed to stand for universal and humanist ideals. I blathered on and on about breaking borders and waging a socialist revolution.

But then came Syria, and my hypocrisy and the fragility of those ideals became exposed.

 

When I first heard the Syrian people in Daraa demand a regime reform on 18 March 2011, all I could think about, subconsciously, was: “If the Egyptian scenario happens in Syria, it would be a disaster for Palestine.”

I did not think about those who were killed by the regime on that day. I did not think of those arrested or tortured.

I did not think about the inevitable crackdown by the regime.

I did not greet the incredibly courageous protests in Daraa with the same elation and zeal I felt during the Tunisian, Egyptian, Bahraini, Yemeni, and Libyan uprisings.

All I could muster was a sigh of suspicion and fear.

“Assad is a tyrant and his regime is rotten,” I thought to myself, “but the subsequent results of its fall might be catastrophic for Palestine and the resistance.” That sacred axis of resistance meant to me back then much more than the Syrian lives being cut short by its defenders.

I was one of those whose hearts would pound when Hassan Nasrallah appeared on TV. I bookmarked loads of YouTube videos of his speeches and teared up while listening to songs glorifying the resistance and its victories.

And while I supported the demands of the Syrian protesters in principle, I did so with reluctance and it was a conditional support. It was not even solidarity because it was so selfish and always centered around Palestine.

I retweeted a blog post by an Egyptian activist calling on Syrians to carry Palestinian flags, in order to “debunk” regime propaganda. The Syrian people took to the streets defending the same universal ideals that I claimed to stand for, yet I was incapable of viewing their struggle outside my narrow Palestinian prism. I claimed to be internationalist while prioritizing Palestinian concerns over Syrian victims. I shamelessly took part in the Suffering Olympics and was annoyed that Syrian pain occupied more newspaper pages than Palestinian pain. I was too gullible to notice that the ordeals of both Syrians and Palestinians are just footnotes and that the breaking news would become too routine, too dull and unworthy of consumption in the space of few months.

I claimed to reject all forms of oppression while simultaneously waiting for the head of a sectarian militia to say something about Syria and to talk passionately about Palestine.

 

The Syrian revolution put me on trial for betraying my principles. But instead of condemning me, it taught me the lesson of my life: it was a lesson given with grace and dignity.

It was delivered with love, by the women and men dancing and singing in the streets, challenging the iron fist with creativity, refusing to give up while being chased by security forces, turning funeral processions into exuberant marches for freedom, rethinking ways to subvert regime censorship; introducing mass politics amidst unspeakable terror; and chanting for unity despite sectarian incitement; and chanting the name of Palestine in numerous protests and carrying the Palestinian flag without needing a superstar Egyptian blogger to ask them to do so.

It was a gradual learning process in which I had to grapple with my own prejudices of how a revolution should “look like,” and how we should react to a movement against a purportedly pro-Palestinian regime. I desperately tried to overlook the ugly face beneath the mask of resistance worn by Hezbollah, but the revolution tore that mask apart. And that was not the only mask torn apart, many more followed. And now the real faces of self-styled freedom fighters and salon leftists were exposed; the long-crushed Syrian voices emerged.

How can one not be inspired by a people rediscovering their voices, transforming folk songs and football chants into revolutionary chants? How can one not be taken aback by protests choreographed in front of tanks?

 

The Syrian geography was much more diverse and rich than that promoted by the regime and the official narrative collapsed as Syrians from the margins reconstructed their own narratives. The Syrian rainbow had many more colors than those permitted by the regime. And Syrians could raise their voices in places other than football stadiums, using their famous victory chant in public squares and streets to curse Hafez al-Assad, the “eternal leader.”

 

If Hafez al-Assad’s name could only be whispered with trembles before 2011, people at last could vociferously curse him and his son, shaking both the physical as well as the symbolic hegemony of this dynasty to its foundations.

 

I could not remain neutral as Syrians redefined the feasible and stretched the boundaries of people power, albeit briefly, during those early months of fatal hope.

Wouldn’t remaining impartial have been an act of treason to anything I claimed to stand for? How could I possibly read out Howard Zinn’s quote “You cannot be neutral on a moving train” to those sitting on the fence on Palestine, while I was doing the same on Syria? The Syrian revolution crumbled the fence from under me. I rediscovered my voice thanks to the mass mobilization I witnessed in Syria. I would listen to clips from Syrian protests, memorize their chants, and repeat them in Palestinian protests. Thinking of the fearlessness of Syrians would immediately make my voice louder and help make me overcome any slight semblance of fear.

 

You do not choose the nationality into which you were born but you don’t have to be bound by its shackles.

My Syrian identity, my sense of belonging to the Syrian revolution, was not forced onto me. I chose to adopt it. I never stepped foot in Syria. It was not until 2013 that I first met a Syrian not from the Occupied Golan Heights in the flesh, face to face. My main way of connecting with Syrians was and remains through social media and Skype. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel Syrian and completely identify with the struggle.

Until 2011, my talk about breaking borders and internationalist solidarity was but a soundbite, mere rhetorics. Thanks to the Syrian uprising, I finally understood what solidarity is really about.

 

I always expected people to support the Palestinian cause without imposing conditions, without preaching or lecturing, without dictating. When the Syrian uprising erupted, I acted exactly like those armchair preaches demanding a jasmine revolution from Palestinians, constantly asking us about the New Gandhi and MLK. But as the revolution went on, I could finally comprehend the true meaning of solidarity from below, a solidarity that is unconditional yet also critical. I saw how people like martyr Omar Aziz applied horizontal self-governance in some of the more conservative and traditional neighborhoods, and I learned from his model.

I learned the meaning of communal solidarity and Palestinian-Syrian togetherness from the Palestinian residents of Daraa refugee camp: they risked their lives to smuggle bread and medicine and break the siege on the rising city of Daraa. It was not just a humanitarian act; it was a political statement and the beginning of the formation of an identity, that of the Palestinian-Syrian revolutionary.

 

Khaled Bakrawi, a Palestinian refugee from Yarmouk, and Zaradasht Wanly, a Syrian youngster from Damascus, were both injured by Israeli occupation forces during “return marches” to the Golan Heights in 2011. Both Khaled and Zaradasht were murdered by the Syrian regime: the former was killed under torture, the latter was shot dead during a peaceful protest.

 

Syrians marched in solidarity with Gaza amid the rubble of their houses destroyed by Syrian regime air strikes. The Syrian Revolutionary Youth put out posters against the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the Naqab when most of the group’s members were in hiding, jails, exile, or graves.

Such is the solidarity of the oppressed which Syrians turned from rhetorics to practice. How can one not admire it?

 

If the Second Intifada in October 2000 shaped the political consciousness and national identity of an 11-year-old girl who had just left her tiny village to move to the city; the first wave of the Syrian revolution in March 2011 rebirthed a woman making her more confident steps in Jerusalem. Jerusalem, my city, the one I chose to call home, could not by any means be liberated by the oppressors of my people, of Syrians. Jerusalem’s spirit cannot be hijacked by those bombing a hospital carrying its name.

Far from struggling to reconcile my Palestinian and Syrian identity layers, The Syrian uprising made me even more committed to the struggle for Palestinian liberation: the liberation of the land from the occupier and the liberation of the cause from dictators and bandwagoners.

 

And while I parted company with people I once regarded comrades because of their support for the Syrian regime, I also gained new, lifelong friendships that have imbued my world with warmth and strength.

 

I owe so much to the Syrian revolution, which re-created me. I have no status or self-importance or willingness to speak on behalf of anyone, let alone on behalf of the Palestinian people, but I personally owe an apology to the Syrian people. I should have never hesitated in supporting their just cause. I should have never privileged geopolitical concerns over Syrian lives; and I should have never been so naively deceived by the propaganda of the resistance axis.

I owe an apology to a people who, for decades, were trodden upon, silenced, and humiliated in the name of my own cause; to a people whose only encounter with “Palestine” was in a prison dungeon carrying this name; the people who were blamed and mocked for being so docile yet when they did rise up, they were abandoned.

I owe an apology to a people who are blamed for a carnage committed against them, just as we have been, and who have been betrayed by an opposition pretending to represent them, just as we have been, too. I owe an apology to a people cynically called upon to bring an alternative to the Assad regime and Islamists while bombs and missiles fall on their heads. Those same people asking “Where is the alternative?” ignore that Syrians who were ready to offer a progressive vision have either been jailed, killed or displaced by the regime.

One would think that Palestinians know the cynicism behind the question of alternatives that they wouldn’t pose it to another oppressed people fighting to build everything from scratch.

 

Yet despite contradictions, Palestinians and Syrians do share the same yearning for freedom, the same burning desire to live in dignity and the dream to walk in the streets of the Old City of Damascus and the Old City of Jerusalem.

The road we shall cross to get there, though, is not the one that the regime and Hezbollah saturated with Syrian corpses, but one paved with the hands of Palestinian and Syrian freedom fighters: by people who know that their freedom is always incomplete without the freedom of their sisters and brothers.

 

Daesh, the (pseudo) Left, and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution

“The role of socialists is not to counterpose themselves to democratic revolutions, which gave rise (in Egypt) to the first democratic government, and (in Syria) to emancipatory projects such as networks of local councils against the existing state, but to take the democratic side against tyranny”.

My response: WHY for heaven’s sake does this even have to be stated?

The reason is because of the general failure to understand that ‘socialists’ who side with tyrants are not worthy of the name, and that the pseudo-left which has been dominant for decades needs to be called out. I wish the reviewer had used that term rather than seeming to accept that one can oppose democratic revolution and still be on the left.

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The following book review is published with permission of Syria Solidarity UK.

* * * *

Khiyana: Daesh, the Left, and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution, ed. Jules Alford and Andy Wilson, published by Unkant, London.

Review by Clara Connolly

This book should be required reading for every leftist, as an antidote to the growing mountain of ignorant comment on the subject of Syria. The title Khiyana (betrayal) is an accusing cry; the book is a trenchant denunciation of the Western Left for its abandonment of the principles of internationalism and solidarity in favour of an alignment with the ‘anti imperialist’ camp, a hangover from the geo-politics of the Cold War.

Assad An-Nar, like most of the authors, situates himself on the Marxist left, and his prefatory chapter could be considered a direct response to Tariq Ali’s infamous dismissal of the Arab Spring in What is a Revolution? (Guernica, Sept. 2013). He sets his critique in the context of the changing nature of revolution in an age of global neoliberalism, where post colonial states are collapsing because neoliberal policies have slashed the limited social protections they used to offer. In this world, he says, the principles of self emancipation and of collective and democratic struggle are ‘ideas in search of a subject.’ Ideas about democracy, socialism, and anti-imperialism used to run in the same direction, but now they are counterposed.

With the collapse of the progressive moment of secular Arab nationalism, Islamist organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood can rise beyond identity/sectarian politics in resistance to tyranny. Though not necessarily opposed to neoliberalism, they are the voice of those who are excluded from its benefits. Hezbollah’s current role in Syria shows that such movements can swing between revolution and counter revolution without moving in a socialist direction.

The role of socialists is not to counterpose themselves to democratic revolutions, which gave rise (in Egypt) to the first democratic government, and (in Syria) to emancipatory projects such as networks of local councils against the existing state, but to take the democratic side against tyranny. Instead the left has responded by either supporting their favourite dictatorships (the neo Stalinists) or by re-hashing theories of ‘permanent revolution,’ i.e. insisting that revolutions can only end in socialism or defeat (the Trotskyists). Yes, he says, a democratic revolution is possible in these countries, but the outcomes are uncertain; the socialist left, while recognising its marginal role, should not condemn itself to irrelevance by denouncing the struggles for democracy because they are not socialist. Instead he urges the left to make the ‘democratic wager,’ in hope that the outcomes lead to more collective forms of struggle. There is little to lose for socialists, he believes, since neoliberalism has led worldwide to the fatal weakening of working class self-organisation.

The subsequent chapters examine and demolish the standard left myths about the Syrian revolution: the ‘jihadist’ nature of the ‘rebels’; the selective anti imperialism which admires Rojava but has no time for similar experiments in local democracy elsewhere in Syria; the role of regional imperialisms like Iran and Russia in propping up a monstrous regime; and above all the lies and distortions peddled by the institutional left (Stop the War Coalition, and the éminence grise of left journalism like Patrick Cockburn, Robert Fisk, and Seymour Hersh) who place the national interests of states they consider to be in the ‘axis of resistance’ above solidarity with the struggles of the oppressed in those countries.

In a short review I can refer only to two further articles in the core of the book; but I cannot resist a passing mention of the glorious satirical piece by M Idrees Ahmad, The Anti-Imperialist Guide to Inaction in Syria. Anyone familiar with debate on Syria will recognise the strategies he lists: ‘Don’t defend Assad, attack his opponents; sympathise selectively; functional doubt where straight denial is risky; defend peace and sovereignty; champion the minorities; talk about ISIS, not Assad; talk about refugees but not the cause of flight,’ etc. Most of these strategies are shared with the establishment and the extreme Right.

Mark Boothroyd describes the responses of Stop the War Coalition (STWC) to Syria, in a case study that echoes the critique in the preface. It has consistently viewed developments through its relation to the US and the UK. In a multi polar world system with competing imperialisms, it persists in viewing events through the prism of the Cold War. The agency of Syrians is erased altogether.

In 2013, STWC opposed the proposed intervention of the UK and when this proposal was defeated in Parliament, it claimed victory; but Boothroyd claims that if the West had really wanted to intervene in Syria it would have done so—its actual strategy is to let the country bleed. I think he underestimates the power of popular protest in democratic countries, and the degree to which STWC was able to tap into post Iraq war weariness. But he is right in pointing out that STWC has missed a trick in failing to expose the real cruelties of the Western role.

In its weaker response to the 2015 intervention against ISIS, STWC has consistently refused to allow oppositional Syrians on its platforms—who have opposed the Coalition campaign against ISIS as useless and counter-productive, but have also proposed more positive measures for the protection of Syrian civilians. Once again, its failure to listen to Syrians has weakened its moral stance even in its own terms—in opposing its own Government.

It could have been different, he believes: the anti war movement could have risen beyond its current ethnocentric, isolationist positions to meet the challenge of changing times, and been a movement to build solidarity with the revolutions in the Middle East.

In The Rise of Daesh in Syria, Sam Charles Hamad attacks the myth of Saudi funding and support for Daesh; instead, in a detailed study, he convincingly shows their deadly rivalry despite their similar ideologies. He demonstrates the origins of Daesh in post invasion Iraq, and its nurture by the sectarian regimes in Iraq and Syria. He shows, by tracing its sources of income, how it is self sustaining. Finally he argues that the current tactics of the west, in fighting Daesh from the air but hampering the oppositions in their fight against the sectarian regimes of Assad and Maliki, are counter-productive. And the left’s narrative is complicit in this.

The book, and particularly its opening chapter, is weakened by a failure to examine more closely such terms as ‘democracy’ and ‘emancipation,’ given their ambivalent history among Marxists; and to analyse the demands of the revolution—Freedom Justice and Dignity—in more detail. This is particularly the case since there is little discussion of class, and no accounts of the role of women in the Syrian revolution, nor of the role of Western women’s peace groups or feminists in relation to Syria. My own recent experience of organising solidarity events with Syrian women suggests that the hostility to, and silencing of, Syrian voices is much less prevalent among feminist organisations than in the left as a whole. The ‘democratic wager’ which is urged upon us might be weighted more favourably with the inclusion of women activists, within Syria and in the West.

Marx Supported Capitalist Globalization

Even the most rabid anti-communists acknowledge that Karl Marx got it right in his understanding and prediction of ‘globalization’, how the economies of the world would industrialise and become increasingly integrated.

 

proletarians-walter-crane

 

“All that is solid melts into air” applies to the nation state as much as to the old feudal system that was overturned by the revolutionary bourgeoisie. Then, as now, reactionaries fought hard to keep things ‘solid’ but leftists welcome the globalizing changes that bring human beings closer together through amazing technological advances in transport and telecommunications.

There is an Index that follows the patterns of globalisation in our time: DHL Global Connectedness Index.

David McMullen has just added a new article to the Communist Manifesto Project that shows how Marx supported globalisation. Thanks to David for permission to republish it here.

****

Today’s “Marxists” share with the rest of the pseudo left an opposition to capitalist, indeed any, globalization. This puts them totally at odds with Marx. The following quote from The Communist Manifesto leaves no doubt about Marx’s pro position:

The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.

The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.

Then in a letter to Engels of October 8 1858 he wrote:

The proper task of bourgeois society is the creation of the world market, at least in outline, and of the production based on that market. Since the world is round, the colonisation of California and Australia and the opening up of China and Japan would seem to have completed this process.

In his other writings, Marx supported Europe’s colonial conquests, the “process” that got globalization going. In his view Europe was the only source of capitalism which in turn was the necessary precursor of communism. Support for this historical necessity did not prevent him from expressing his disgust at the barbarity and hypocrisy of the Europeans as they went about this conquest nor was he impressed with the tardy pace at which the old societies were being replaced by the new. What he was doing was recognizing that capitalism has a dialectical or contradictory nature. Only capitalism can create the conditions for its own demise. You have to support it in order to oppose it. In “The British Rule in India” New York Daily News of June 25, 1853, he wrote:

These small stereotype forms of social organism [autonomous villages] have been to the greater part dissolved, and are disappearing, not so much through the brutal interference of the British tax-gatherer and the British soldier, as to the working of English steam and English free trade. Those family-communities were based on domestic industry, in that peculiar combination of hand-weaving, hands-spinning and hand-tilling agriculture which gave them self-supporting power. English interference having placed the spinner in Lancashire and the weaver in Bengal, or sweeping away both Hindoo spinner and weaver, dissolved these small semi-barbarian, semi-civilized communities, by blowing up their economical basis, and thus produced the greatest, and to speak the truth, the only social revolution ever heard of in Asia.

Now, sickening as it must be to human feeling to witness those myriads of industrious patriarchal and inoffensive social organizations disorganized and dissolved into their units, thrown into a sea of woes, and their individual members losing at the same time their ancient form of civilization, and their hereditary means of subsistence, we must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies. We must not forget the barbarian egotism which, concentrating on some miserable patch of land, had quietly witnessed the ruin of empires, the perpetration of unspeakable cruelties, the massacre of the population of large towns, with no other consideration bestowed upon them than on natural events, itself the helpless prey of any aggressor who deigned to notice it at all. We must not forget that this undignified, stagnatory, and vegetative life, that this passive sort of existence evoked on the other part, in contradistinction, wild, aimless, unbounded forces of destruction and rendered murder itself a religious rite in Hindostan. We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow.

England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.

In “The Future Results of British Rule in India” New York Daily News of August 8, 1853, he wrote:

England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating – the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundation of Western society in Asia.

He expressed a similar view when writing about Britain’s beastly treatment of China. So that in “Revolution in China and In Europe”, New York Daily News, June 14, 1853 we read:

It is almost needless to observe that, in the same measure in which opium has obtained the sovereignty over the Chinese, the Emperor and his staff of pedantic mandarins have become dispossessed of their own sovereignty. It would seem as though history had first to make this whole people drunk before it could rouse them out of their hereditary stupidity.

and then:

All these dissolving agencies acting together on the finances, the morals, the industry, and political structure of China, received their full development under the English cannon in 1840, which broke down the authority of the Emperor, and forced the Celestial Empire into contact with the terrestrial world. Complete isolation was the prime condition of the preservation of Old China. That isolation having come to a violent end by the medium of England, dissolution must follow as surely as that of any mummy carefully preserved in a hermetically sealed coffin, whenever it is brought into contact with the open air.

In an article published in the Deutsche-Brüsseler-Zeitung No. 7, January 23, 1848, Engels expressed his delight at America’s victory in the war with Mexico and the conquest of California, Texas and areas in between. In their footnotes the editors at Progress Press in Moscow try to make out that both Engels and Marx later took a different view. They cite an 1861 article by Marx called “The Civil War in North America”. Here Marx mentions how expansionism at the time was driven by the slave owners. Although he makes no actual mention of the Mexican-American War. In hindsight we can see that one good thing about the annexations was that they contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War which the slave-owners went on to lose. Their attempt to spread slavery to the new territories was the last straw. And we can now say without fear of contradiction that capitalist development greatly benefited from the switch in sovereignty. Here is a link to the 1861 article. It is no use on the Mexican-American War but it is a very illuminating exposition of the expansionist threat posed by the slave states and a very good argument against British “neutrality”.

Marx was quite unsupportive of rebellions by reactionary or backward elements in colonial societies. These included the Taiping Rebellion in China and the Indian Mutiny.

In “Chinese Affairs” Die Presse, No. 185, July 7, 1862, Marx has nothing positive to say about the Taiping Rebellion that rocked southern China from 1850 to 1864

They have no slogans. They are an even greater abomination for the masses of the people than for the old rulers. They seem to have no other vocation than, as opposed to conservative stagnation, to produce destruction in grotesquely detestable forms, destruction without any nucleus of new construction.

“Marxists” have tried to tell a different tale. Over at The Marx and Engels Internet Archive they have a section entitled Articles on China 1853 – 1860. It has other articles that deal with rebellion but not the Die Presse article for copyright reasons. In their introduction they paint the Taiping in glowing colors:

At the same time, the Taiping rebellion broke out in 1850 and attacked the status quo Confucianist Manchu Dynasty — which had ruled since 1644. The rebellion was based in social revolutionary ideas of equality and was popular among the masses. It abolished private property, established sexual equality, and banned drugs (from alcohol to opium). By 1853, it dominated much of SE China. It would not be until 1864 that the Taiping capital of Nanking was captured by the imperial Manchu government.

Progress Press also have this rather gratuitous footnote in Volume I of Capital:

In 1850-64, China was swept by an anti-feudal liberation movement in the form of a large-scale peasant war, the Taiping Revolt.

The fairly uncontroversial Wikipedia entry on the Taiping Rebellion gives a far less flattering picture.

There is also an attempt to paint the Indian Mutiny as a national liberation movement. The Soviet Foreign Languages Publishing House in 1959 brought out a collection of articles by Marx on the Indian Mutiny entitled The First Indian War of Independence, 1857-1859. Also the The Marx and Engels Internet Archive has a web page entitled The First Indian War of Independence (1857-1858)
Marx does not explicitly repudiate the Mutiny in the way that he did in the case of the Taiping Rebellion. However, the total absence of any explicit statement of support is just as telling. He is very concerned to expose British military incompetence and brutality. He is also pleased by the financial and political strain it is placing on Britain. But that is as far as it goes. It is hard to imagine him supporting a pack of princes who wanted to reinstate the Mogul empire after what we know about his view on the role of the British in India.

The editors of Progress Press were also embarrassed by an article by Engels called “French Rule in Algeria” (The Northern Star January 22 1848). Here he wrote:

Upon the whole it is, in our opinion, very fortunate that the Arabian chief has been taken. The struggle of the Bedouins was a hopeless one, and though the manner in which brutal soldiers, like Bugeaud, have carried on the war is highly blameable, the conquest of Algeria is an important and fortunate fact for the progress of civilisation. The piracies of the Barbaresque states, never interfered with by the English government as long as they did not disturb their ships, could not be put down but by the conquest of one of these states. And the conquest of Algeria has already forced the Beys of Tunis and Tripoli, and even the Emperor of Morocco, to enter upon the road of civilisation. They were obliged to find other employment for their people than piracy, and other means of filling their exchequer than tributes paid to them by the smaller states of Europe. And if we may regret that the liberty of the Bedouins of the desert has been destroyed, we must not forget that these same Bedouins were a nation of robbers,—whose principal means of living consisted of making excursions either upon each other, or upon the settled villagers, taking what they found, slaughtering all those who resisted, and selling the remaining prisoners as slaves. All these nations of free barbarians look very proud, noble and glorious at a distance, but only come near them and you will find that they, as well as the more civilised nations, are ruled by the lust of gain, and only employ ruder and more cruel means. And after all, the modern bourgeois, with civilisation, industry, order, and at least relative enlightenment following him, is preferable to the feudal lord or to the marauding robber, with the barbarian state of society to which they belong.

Progress Press in its footnotes refers to this resistance as a liberation struggle. They also then claim that in an 1844 article Engels had made commendable noises about the resistance and that an article “Algeria” written for the New American Encyclopaedia in 1857 reverses the position expressed in the 1848 article. There is nothing in either article that can be construed in this way. An editor’s footnote to the latter article claims that the relevant material was left out by the encylcopaedia editors and this is conformed by a letter from Engels to Marx on 22 September 1857. The letter shows nothing of the sort. The reader is invited to read those three pieces to make up their own mind.

These views of Marx are not at odds with support by communists for the 20th century anti-colonial movement. By that stage the movement was primarily lead by western educated elements who sought to modernize their countries rather than take them backwards. Although there were some oddities such as Mahatma Gandhi, and independence brought many monsters like Idi Amin in Uganda and Mobutu in Zaire, and the whole process was badly affected by the Cold War.

THE KERR COUP AGAINST WHITLAM – 40 YEARS ON, STILL A MYTH

Originally published in Strange Times, no.10 April 1991. (This article was written well before Keating launched his ‘republican debate’.) On 11 November 1975 the Australian Governor General, Sir John Kerr, dismissed the Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, on the grounds that he was unable to get the budget through the Opposition dominated upper house (the Senate). Kerr then appointed the opposition leader Malcom Fraser caretaker Prime Minister and called an election. Fraser subsequently won the election in a landslide.

I am republishing the discussion about the article as well, including my own which is the last comment below. I sum up my position thus: I look back on the semi-fascist coup analysis now with a sense of bewilderment. The writ by which Whitlam was sacked specified that a caretaker government be appointed and that an election be held. There’s nothing fascistic about that. Why then did people who had good leftwing credentials pursue that line?

****

THE KERR COUP – ANOTHER MYTH

The recent death of former Governor-General John Kerr is a good excuse to look back over the way the left reacted to his sacking of Whitlam. It is a remarkable example of how people who claimed to be radical leftists could tie themselves to the coat tails of the Laborites. They convinced themselves of all sorts of conspiracy theories about CIA involvement and described the sacking as a semi-fascist coup – a case of the ruling class abandoning parliamentary institutions. The left’s analysis of the Whitlam sacking is second only to its stance on the Gulf War as an example of its cretinism.

Essentially all Kerr did was to force the most unpopular government in Australian history to face the electorate. According to the left this was all terribly fascist because the government’s unpopularity was due to a malicious media campaign engineered by the media barons and multinationals. However, given the ability of the Whitlam government to shoot itself in the foot every other week, it would have required the media to be actively biased in its favour for it not to show the government in a bad light. It was also the time of the worst world economic downturn since the depression of the 1930s and for that reason alone very few elected governments anywhere in the world survived the mid 1970s.

The left was also outraged at the Liberal’s blocking supply in the Senate. The Labor Government liked to describe the House of Representatives as the ‘people’s house’ and to claim that it was being de_ed by the Senate which is elected on a less representative basis. This is a funny argument given that Fraser’s main interest was in getting an election for the lower house, so that ‘the people could decide’. It was Labour that was keen to avoid that at all costs. They had schemes for calling half senate elections, anything but an election over who was to govern.

Certainly the royalist institution of Governor-General should be replaced by a president, but that is another issue. Hopefully the appointment to the position of a republican and atheist in the person of Bill Hayden will do much to hasten its demise.

________________

• Re: The Kerr “coup” – Another myth
Posted by keza at 2005-11-24 10:01 PM

There’s a detailed account of the events referred to in the article above in the the Wikipedia entry for Sir John Kerr…

I notice that the “left” is still referring to what happened as a “coup” eg the following was posted on the GreenLeft website Just recently (November 11):

The enduring political significance of the coup lies in the fact that it demonstrated, in a particularly dramatic form, how ruthlessly the ruling class is prepared to defend its interests. Behind the assiduously cultivated façade of parliamentary democracy lies the organised violence of the capitalist state, ready to be called upon when needed.

Never mind that all John Kerr really did was to insist that an immediate general election be held.

Never mind that prior to this he had given Whitlam the opportunity to call a general election himself – and Whitlam had refused.

And never mind that when the election happened the Labour Party suffered a landslide defeat.

The pseudo- left dismissal of the recent Iraqi elections is a continuation of the same style of thinking. It indicates a deep misunderstanding of the meanings of words like “fascist”, “coup” and “democracy” as well a contempt for people as gullible victims of manipulation.

The genuine left always defends hard won democratic rights while pushing for more of them. Governments should have to face the electorate more often, not less often.

_________________

• government or referendum?
Posted by kerrb at 2005-11-25 08:38 PM
keza wrote:
Governments should have to face the electorate more often, not less often

Why? I think that needs more explanation.

Should governments be allowed to get on with the job or should policy be decided by a series of referendums? Don’t we already have enough populism and governments afraid to bite the bullet? What government today would introduce a measure that would have long term benefits 20 years down the track but few short term benefits – for example an intensive preschool program in disadvantaged areas?

If there were elections in USA right now then Bush would probably lose and I don’t think that would be a good thing. Should we get behind the Unions populism and demand that Howard’s IR reforms be decided by a new election? They are unpopular despite an expensive and phoney government advertising campaign.

From a broader perspective many correct ideas lack popular support: atheism, communism, the idea that we are not on the verge of environmental catastrophe. Democracy is a good idea too, far superior to fascism, but the concept of deciding everything by 51% vote has its limitations IMO. I’m not clear about the solutions.

The Whitlam government was elected in December 1972 and initiated a lot of reforms many of which were blocked by the hostile Senate. Because of this Whitlam called another election in May 1974 but that backfired, he was re-elected with a reduced majority. Obstruction from the Senate continued leading to the blocking of supply.

After the Queen’s representative intervened and sacked the Whitlam government there was another election in December 1975 which Whitlam this time lost. Three elections in three years, was that good?

Given that the Whitlam government was the first labour government since 1946 then it was easy to get the impression that the Liberals believed they were born to rule.

I take the point that what happened then wasn’t fascism, that that was bad analysis. But the combination of the Liberals born to rule attitude and the colonial relics in our constitution (Queens representative) were sound reasons to oppose The Dismissal.

And I still like Whitlam’s anger and speech on parliament house steps: “Well may we sing God Save the Queen… Because nothing will save the Governor-General”. Guess I’m a sucker for a nice piece of rhetoric.

_________________________

Bill Kerr
• Re: government or referendum?
Posted by keza at 2005-11-25 11:13 PM
Well of course populism can be a problem. The majority isn’t always right, people embrace all sorts of backward ideas etc etc. But the solution can’t be to support having restrictions on the democratic process. If there is popular support for backward or reactionary policies then it’s up to progressive people to fight for better ideas. The way I see it, the more opportunities for people to have their say, the more opportunities are provided for genuine struggle and the overall lifting of the general level of debate and understanding.

I remember this happening on a small scale in the Melbourne Moratorium debates in Richmond Town Hall (1970’s). As far as I know, the Melbourne Moratorium was run differently from the Moratoriums in other Australian cities because rather than being organised from on high by a committee, the major decisions were taken by open public meetings where policy issues were subject to a debate followed by a vote.

As a consequence the Melbourne moratorium policies were far to the left of anywhere else in Australia – eg here the USwas clearly labeled as an imperialist aggressor whereas in other places the policies were mainly pacifist. When there is genuine debate about things, the better ideas do tend to win out. It is lack of discussion and lack of opportunity to engage in any sort of democratic process which leads to the persistence of reactionary ideas.
If the voting system here in Australia was based on proportional representation this would break the current two party system but it would also have the effect of giving representation to all sorts of smallish groups – many of them with more reactionary policies than either Labour or Liberal. It would also lead to more unstable government. But I’d see both these things as good relative to the situation we have now. Anything which opens things up and gives people more of a chance to engage with the issues of the day has to be a good thing from a progressive perspective.

I think this has been happening in Iraq. Opponents of regime change have talked endlessly of the dangers of democracy in Iraq claiming that the result would be an Islamic state. the Iraqis aren’t ready for democracy, there’s no chance of the Shia, Kurds and Sunnis working things out, what they need is a strong leader etc etc.

If there was to be an election in the US aimed at trying to bring down Bush and his policies then the issues wouod have to be fought out. I think that would be a good thing.

________________________

• Re: government or referendum?
Posted by tomb at 2005-11-26 12:12 AM
perhaps not a fear of elections but a fear of losing. (whitlam would relate to this given his close relationship with the fascist indonesian government and support for the annexation of east timor)

________________________

• Re: government or referendum?
Posted by kerrb at 2005-11-26 01:27 AM
keza,

You have cited some good examples where more democracy / extended democracy is a very good thing – Melbourne Moratorium, proportional representation, Iraq elections …

It’s a fundamental point and as a general principle I agree … extended democracy combined with real discussion does work in favour of the best ideas winning through and there are precious few examples of discussion of this sort in Australian politics.

However, I can also think of examples where not following established democratic procedures was a good thing too … the US / Coalition of the Willing invasion of Iraq for example, not supported by the United Nations … I think the argument here is that fighting fascism is a more urgent principle

As for holding regular referendums in the USA about whether to continue the Iraq war, that strikes me as impractical – pull the troops out, a few months later send ’em back in – you can’t fight a war like that.

_________________________

Bill Kerr
• Re: government or referendum?
Posted by anita at 2005-11-26 05:35 AM

Thanks for following up my post, and apologies for the obtuseness of my original post.

What is highlighted is the paradoxical nature of democracy. (Take it away AL) I think it was courageous of Gough Whitlam to try and stand for his policies via election, but he didnot read the writing on the wall after they were soundly rejected and his majority was reduced. We know the outcome of his failure to take account of the mood of the electorate.

Politics is about brinkmanship and government’s can fall. My gut feeling is that a smart politician probably says yes to elections when out of office, and No when in office. I take the points Bill, but don’t think the example really works because the coalition did follow established democratic procedures, but broke from the outcome of those procedures muttering something about the numbers.

There is something to be said for a binding caucus type of principle but there comes a time when you might have to walk as the coalition did over failure to reach a necessary or desired outcome.

I support Proportional Representation with four year terms, but think that it is probably ok to maintain the Australian custom of the govt choosing the election time. I also think that the Australian practice of no limit on the number of terms in office is preferable to the American provision for 2 terms only. IMO it is about accountability, and George Bush for instance would be much more accountable and useful if he was facing the prospect of a third term in office.

Back to the so-called Kerr ‘coup’ which we find is not a coup. It was not, as happened in my own sphere of involvement, (Flinders uni in Sth Australia, mid 90’s) where democracy was about Annual elections; General Student Meetings; and Action Groups – there was a referendum policy measure that worked quite well in the circumstances – but I too would not recommend governing a country by referenda on policy questions) a matter of being hit with an unconstitutional referendum and having to wear the disastrous consequences of ‘boycotting’ said referendum, once the uni administration was convinced that pushing through an unconstitutional was in their political intrerests.

This resulted in… I’m losing count… maybe 4 or 5 full elections at Flinders in 1995.

Anyway in the example of Whitlam’s sacking, it was brought upon himself. So I don’t think his sacking – or more recently the decision to go to war in Iraq, strayed far from accepted democratic and legal conventions at all.

Bugger, I replied to the response and not the main topic,,, and now have only the last message to re-read before concluding these late-at-night, hastily written words. For better, or worse, and before i drag up anymore of my Flinders uni. memories.

c’est la vie

c’est la guerre

Que sera sera

Fare-the-well the ALP* student movement. (To the tune of Polly Wolly Doodle all the day)

Best of all RIP NUS** (I could not help myself) (

Anita

* ALP = Australian Labour Party

** NUS = National Union of Students)

• Re: The Kerr “coup” – Another myth
Posted by arthur at 2005-11-26 10:41 AM
Great to see Anita republishing stuff from “Red Politics”. Already seems to have raised the level of discussion by provoking deeper thought on both imperialism and “The Dismissal”. Hope this stuff gets properly integrated into the folder navigation structure of the site for permanent reference rather than lost in more ephemeral forum discussions. Also hope to see us starting to write articles like that from a current perspective (and David, who wrote both of those and many other excellent articles more than a decade ago, adding some more).

This topic has already branched into two additional issues of more contemporary and global (non-Australian) significance – “Revolutionary Democracy” (including the dialectics of leadership and mass line in broad struggles we have had experience of such as the student movement and Vietnam solidarity movement and “Constitutional Reform” (including electoral systems).

I’d like to see both of those separated out into topics of their own (and will do so myself if not beaten to it). Bill’s points about populism, majoritarianism, biting the bullet and not being limited by process is of even deeper relevance to how revolutionary democrats build mass movements (and how they organize themselves) than it is to how governments should be organized in modern western societies. We didn’t achieve the wider extended democracy favourable to left politics that keza refers to in either the student movement or the Vietnam war protests by accepting majority rule – we were a very small minority and loudly denounced as undemocratic by our opponents – but we avoided isolation by tight leadership following a mass line.

On “The Dismissal” itself, that’s precisely what the ALP did not do. Looking through the wikipedia article, their “radical” reforms – hysterically opposed by the conservative opposition at the time – were pretty tame then and are conventional wisdom now. When Harold Holt was denouncing Whitlam for betraying the American alliance by proposing to recognize China, Kissinger was already in secret negotiations with Peking.

The ALP government tore itself apart with no tight leadership and made no serious effort to mobilize the masses for its reform program. Instead they absorbed much of what had previously been anti-government and anti-system activism into a new caste of do gooders funded by government – completely gutting the activist movement that had been developing against their more conservative predecessors.

The sordid constitutional maneuverings on all sides were pathetic – bribing an opposition senator with an ambassadorial post to Ireland to gain a vote for the government, state governments appointing replacement senators opposed to the party of deceased senators to gain a vote for the opposition, the governor-general not warning the Prime Minister of his intention to dismiss him etc etc.

But on the fundamental issue, Fraser was open and above board in declaring his intention to bring down the government by blocking supply and mobilized the people in opposition to government policies, while Whitlam made no attempt to mobilize the people in defence of his policies but instead tried to minimize the landslide against his government by demagogic attempts to deflect popular anger through making the decision to call an election the central issue.

In the USA the Executive government with a fixed term in office is often dominated by one party while Congress is dominated by another and conflicts between the two occasionally result in the Federal Government grinding to a halt due to supply being cut by Congress.

Australia (wisely or not) deliberately chose the Westminster system of the executive being responsible to Parliament instead of fixed term governments. Whitlam tried to “crash through” in a system where the ultimate result of the opposition refusing to back down could only be a crash (before or after supply ran out, depending on the Governor-General).

Instead of defending his program, Whitlam tried to deflect attention of ALP supporters from his leadership failure by demagoguery against “colonial relics”. This worked and there is still deep anger among ALP supporters about this “betrayal of democracy” by holding an election, while Whitlam remains a party hero.

Its complete and utter phoniness was highlighted by the “Republican” fiasco in which the ALP proposed to remove the colonial relic while retaining EXACTLY the same system that led to the Dismissal.

In reality the only “colonial relic” involved was the ALP which, for the first time in Australian history actually appealed to the British (Labor) government to directly intervene in Australian affairs when the Speaker of the House asked the Queen to act on the advice of her imperial British Ministers rather than her Australian Ministers to refuse to hold the election advised by her Australian Ministers. Naturally the British government and the Queen did no such thing (and in fairness the ALP could not have imagined that they would but was just engaged in more demagoguery in appealing to the Queen).

I was outside Australia during the whole period leading up to The Dismissal and so missed out on the developing atmosphere. But it was quite stunning on coming back to find so much latent support for the ALP among leftists who had previously been completely contemptuous of it – with genuine anger about how “our” party had been viciously deposed by such undemocratic means as holding a (CIA inspired, fascist, etc etc) election at which it had been undemocratically rejected by a landslide due to the ignorance of the unwashed masses about the importance of governmental stability!

This really was an early warning about the tendencies that have now shown themselves more fully in the current collapse of the left in the face of the pseudo-left. Perhaps that historical event, as well as the Red Eureka Movement discussion about international questions was a factor in why there seems to be greater clarity about the pseudos in Australia than elsewhere.
• Re: The Kerr “coup” – Another myth
Posted by kerrb at 2005-11-26 05:29 PM
arthur wrote:
I was outside Australia during the whole period leading up to The Dismissal and so missed out on the developing atmosphere. But it was quite stunning on coming back to find so much latent support for the ALP among leftists who had previously been completely contemptuous of it – with genuine anger about how “our” party had been viciously deposed by such undemocratic means as holding a (CIA inspired, fascist, etc etc) election at which it had been undemocratically rejected by a landslide due to the ignorance of the unwashed masses about the importance of governmental stability!
I think there was evidence of CIA displeasure at the Whitlam government to do with two issues of substance – the raid on ASIO by Murphy and nervousness that Whitlam might kick out US military bases (Pine Gap) in Australia. The ASIO raid perhaps arose from the practice of ASIO keeping dossiers on some ALP politicians who were active in the anti-Vietnam war movement. Murphy believed that ASIO was withholding information about Ustasha involvement in Australia. This had an echo later in SA when Don Dunstan sacked the police commisioner Salisbury, I think for similar sorts of reasons (dirt files on ALP politicians).

Significant reforms by the Whitlam government included the medicare health reform, increased access to University education by students from working class backgrounds and some ongling support students from disadvantaged backgrounds. These reforms have been incrementally whittled away by the current Liberal / National Coalition, illustrating the point that more than reform is needed.

I agree with tomb’s point that Whitlam did a dirty deal with the Indonesian government on East Timor.

In the final analysis the people did vote out Whitlam, so no argument there.

Two Australian labour governments have been dismissed (Whitlam and Jack Lang in NSW) in this way – intervention by the Queens representative – and no Conservative governments. This contributes to the sense of foul play.
_________________________

Bill Kerr
• Re: The Kerr “coup” – Another myth
Posted by byork at 2005-11-28 01:56 AM
I was a member of the CPA(ML) at the time, in 1975, and the party line was that it was indeed a semi-fascist coup. But this was not seen, as I recall it, only in terms of CIA involvement but in terms of superpower contention. Whitlam had recognized Soviet domination of the Baltic states and had been friendly to the Australia-Soviet Friendship Society. There was also some minor stuff happening with the Moscow Narodny bank in Australia which was also meant to clinch the argument. I don’t think Whitlam ever threatened the US bases in Australia but rather sought joint US-Australia control over Pine Gap. The CIA didn’t need to do much, as world events such as the oil crisis, plus the Labor government’s own incompetence as a manager of capitalism, brought it down. Whitlam lost the plot, even in his own social democratic terms, and turned to the fascist regime in Iraq to raise election funds which he could never raise from the Australian working people.

I look back on the semi-fascist coup analysis now with a sense of bewilderment. The writ by which Whitlam was sacked specified that a caretaker government be appointed and that an election be held. There’s nothing fascistic about that. Why then did people who had good leftwing credentials pursue that line?

I think part of the reason relates to the fact that the struggles over the big issues like Vietnam, censorship, White Australia Policy, and apartheid, in which the Left did win ground, had been more or less successful. The resultant absence of issues, or vacuum, led to frustration and recrimination within the Left and a desire, by some of us, including me, to try to keep something alive that was really gone.

The religious type of analysis that saw dialectics in terms of constant progress with people’s struggles intensifying and going from victory to victory with every new year’s issue of Vanguard led those who accepted it into a dead end. When people close their minds, as I did, to debate and exchange of ideas, and instead conglomerate within a very small sect (within a sect), then they can’t possibly understand revolutionary theory and they have lost touch with reality. (“All that is real is rational”). They become self-satisfied opponents of everyone else, praised and egged on by respected veterans.

People like me applied themselves to the ‘semi-fascist coup’ issue with similar dedication as we applied ourselves to supporting the Vietnamese liberation struggle, the struggle against apartheid, etc. Being militantly active was part of the religious ritual, evidence of our ‘superiority’ – ie, we were making real sacrifices on demonstrations – and a substitute for critical thinking. I look back on it with regret and embarrassment but also think it a big pity as there were some astute minds zombified by that sect. Very few of them today take a progressive line on things like Iraq and globalisation.

Yes, there were people saying good things and the republication of the ‘Red Eureka’ material on this site shows that its analysis was pretty good and stands up well to this day.

On Whitlam, it interests me that the reforms that are applauded and held up by his supporters generally do not include those that were most significant. Sometimes, the claims made for him are not even accurate. I have written a few times over the years to the ABC to get them to correct the oft-quoted claim that Whitlam withdrew Australian troops from Vietnam. This is a nonsense, as the ground troops were withdrawn by Gorton by Christmas 1971 – a tribute to the effectiveness of the Vietnamese struggle and that of its Australian supporters, and also indicative of Australian governmental subservience to US policy changes. There was only a small Australian military group left in South Vietnam in 1972). Even the claim that Whitlam abolished conscription is wrong – he merely suspended the National Service Act by regulation (which was a good thing, as it freed the few remaining imprisoned draft resisters). (It was rescinded many years later).

The recognition of China would have happened anyway – my old friend Joe Forace, late lamented, was Malta’s High Commisisoner to Australia and Ambassador to China and was the go-between for Liberal Prime Minister McMahon with Chou En Lai. The McMahon Government did much groundwork – Joe used to say that Whitlam merely signed on the line.

Similarly the White Australia Policy had been gradually ‘liberalised’ allowing for categories of Asians to settle here permanently. McMahon would also have done what Whitlam did in abolishing al racial criteria – maybe he would have been slower. Who knows?

Even the multicultural thing is not entirely a Whitlam era acheivement. Grants had been given to migrant/ethnic community organisations prior to Whitlam. Fraser did much more than Whitlam to institutionalise multiculturalism.

The most significant Whitlam reform – the one that his fans seem to want to ignore – was his government’s reversal of nearly 75 years of national protectionist policy. Whitlam was nearly roasted alive by the reactionary unions when he slashed tariffs by 25 percent. And his government was the first to tell the rural sector that they had to get real and could no longer expect to be propped up by government funding regardless of competitiveness. Remember the good ole days when margarine was controversial and the Country Party was warning everyone that it was produced by soap manufacturers?

So, in sum, I think Whitlam’s acheivements tend to be overblown and his real ones overlooked.

The Australian people voted against him, in an election that had to happen because of the nature of the writs creating the dismissal. Lots of former revoultionary leftists joined the ALP at the time, which probably made more sense than remaining in the CPA(ML).

Barry