The Australian Political Situation and Our Perspectives After S11

The Activist - Volume 11, Number 1, January 2001

By Peter Boyle

Comrades, you’d think that there would be a sense of excitement about Australian politics in the coming year. After all there is going to be a federal election, and several state elections, in a year in which most bourgeois economists agree there is going to be a sharp economic downturn or a recession. This will be the first recession for the Howard Liberal-National federal government and it will be a recession that follows a strange boom ¾ one where the benefits of economic expansion were distributed extremely unevenly. The rich got richer and poor got poorer. But where is the excitement?

Instead the bourgeois media is flooded with discussions about political events 100 years ago ¾ events which, they bemoan, most Australians couldn’t care less about. And why should we care about these events? Federation was not an act of national liberation in this country but merely a bit of bourgeois re-ordering done by the Australian capitalist class to meet its own selfish needs. The three "great men of Federation" (whose names most Australian can never remember) weren’t interested in liberating the masses. They fought for no bill of rights for us but they did enshrine the rights to private property and to conduct business in the constitution.

The "mass appeal" at the original celebration of federation were salutes to the British Empire and to "white Australia", "Australia for the white man, not the cheap nigger, not the cheap Chinese", as the Bulletin’s masthead unashamedly proclaimed.

So the political debate we have today focuses on how this history should be read: the "ra-ra-ra" version or the "wa-wa-wa" ("black armband") version, or what mix in between. At the core of this debate is an argument our rulers (and their ideologues) are having about how best to fool us that we are still "one Australia" even while the capitalist neo-liberal offensive sharpens the class divide.

The capitalist media is not trying to cover up a popular discussion about the coming federal elections and the impending elections. There really isn’t one to speak of and the main reason for this is that it will make very little difference if the Howard government is replaced by a Beazley Labor government. Nothing much will change and everybody knows this.

This is the big reality about Australian politics today. This is what dampens mass interest in politics and in electoral politics in particular. The two major parties have the same pro-corporate, neo-liberal agenda. Both collect millions of dollars from the big corporations to put on the farce of competing at elections to serve as their loyal servants. So elections are seen as more irrelevant than ever before. The masses are alienated from the official political process.

But we shouldn’t be mislead by this into thinking that nothing is going on in Australian politics today. On the contrary, as this report will argue, profound changes have been taking place over the last few years, changes that could lay the basis for a dramatic re-entry of the popular masses into the political life of this country.

The capitalist neo-liberal offensive

The capitalist class in Australia, as in other countries around the world, has been on a major neo-liberal offensive since the mid-1970s when the post-WWII economic boom ended. There was some working class resistance during the Fraser Liberal government but by the early 1980s, the Hawke Labor government ended any significant fight-back through the Labor-ACTU Accord. The Accord was a class collaborationist pact between the unions and the government which allowed wages, working conditions, the social wage and workers’ rights to be cut back, when the union leaderships enforced restraint on the union ranks.

As a result we have had some 24 years of capitalist neo-liberal offensive and some 17 years of systematic working class retreat.

There were some in the trade union movement who thought that the end of the Labor federal government in 1996 would see the unions freed up to fight the capitalists’ attacks. But this proved a false hope and the reality was driven home after the August 19, 1996 rally outside Parliament House in Canberra to protest Howard’s anti-union industrial laws and attacks on public services.

In the wake of the August 19 events at Parliament House in Canberra, Howard government ministers sought to discourage the unions from holding any further protest rallies by claiming the ACTU organised a "riot" and that such events are "un-Australian". Then Labor and Democrat politicians and trade union leaders joined in the condemnations of the expressions of frustration of some workers, vented on the doors to Parliament House. Militant rank and file unionists, community activists and socialists, like ourselves, were blamed for instigating the "un-Australian violence".

The unions then copped out on fighting the Workplace Relations Act in the streets, saying that the Democrats would save the day in the Senate. The Democrats, then led by Cheryl Kernot, did a dirty deal with Howard and there was not a whimper from the unions. A year later Kernot was welcomed into Labor’s ranks as a new star leader.

The broader significance of August 19, 1996 was that the ALP opposition and the main trade union leaderships signaled unequivocally that they were not going to support opposition in the streets to future Howard attacks. In Parliament, "opposition" became extinct and was replaced by accusations and counter-accusations of sleaze and corruption.

So the neo-liberal attacks rolled on with little opposition: massive cuts to public sector jobs, attacks on welfare, health, education, workers’ rights, etc. Australian politics became a very one-sided affair.

At our January 1997 Congress we concluded, grimly:

Today, the domination of the class-collaborationists within the union officialdom has reached the point of almost total monopoly. During the 13 years of Labor government the minority of union officials who based themselves on the spontaneous class-struggle sentiments and traditions of the union movement were either absorbed into the class-collaborationist bureaucracy or, as was the case with the leadership of the Builders Labourers Federation, lost their official positions through union-busting operations conducted by the government and the ACTU.

With the unions locked into retreat, the other social movements would follow their course. Most of the old social movements were disappearing leaving only conservative lobby groups and "peak bodies" in their place. They all disdained independent mass action. Even the student movement, since the late 1960s the most militant sector, wasn’t putting up much of a fight against attacks on education and student rights by the Howard government.

We noted:

Independent mass political action is the alternative to the class-collaborationists’ course of subordinating the interests of working people to the framework of class-collaboration and bourgeois electoralism.

Independent mass political action is … a strategy to advance the self-organisation and collective mobilisation of the ranks of the working class and its potential allies (students, small farmers, middle-class professionals) in struggle in the workplaces, schools and universities; in the streets; and in the electoral arena. This consistent class-struggle course can be followed only by breaking with the illusion peddled by the ruling class and its labour lieutenants that the problems confronting working people can be resolved through the bourgeois electoral system.

In Australia today the number of workers and students who consciously adhere to and advocate a consistent class-struggle strategy of independent mass action are a tiny minority, most of whom are organised in the Democratic Socialist Party.

While we are the largest group on the left, the small size of our organisation ... reflects an objective fact about the level of development of political consciousness among the workers and students of this country; that is, while the broad masses are discontented with the direction society is headed in, nervous about the future and alienated from official bourgeois politics, they remain politically inert and ideologically enslaved by the bourgeoisie. This fact cannot be overcome by the subjective actions of a few hundred revolutionary-minded militants.

We are too small to alter the course of the class struggle directly. We cannot call into being massive street marches or a gigantic strike wave. What we can do, and what we must do, is respond to events and work within the alignment of class forces that confronts us with the goal of strengthening our Marxist cadre force.

This was the grim situation in January 1997. I’ve been told there is an old Scottish saying: "When things are glum, there’s worse to come!"

And so it seemed in 1997. Politics did not disappear for long but the way in which it came back to sweep Australia was not what we were looking for.

Hansonism

In 1997, a new political force burst onto the scene, racist populism, under an unlikely leader Pauline Hanson, a deselected Liberal candidate from Ipswich in Queensland, elected on Liberal preferences. All of a sudden ordinary people were talking about politics in the streets, on the busses and trains, at workplaces and homes ¾ but it was all focussed on Hanson and a her One Nation Party which claimed to oppose some of the neo-liberal attacks but scapegoated Aborigines and Asian migrants for the pain felt by workers and small farmers. An assortment of far-right groups, including the League of Rights and the neo-nazi National Action flocked around Hanson’s campaign which included a national speaking tour.

Howard’s response was to encourage Hanson’s racist appeals ¾ with an attack on so-called "political correctness" ¾ while ignoring or dismissing her attacks on his government’s neo-liberal measures. The Labor opposition mostly went quiet, except for a few ALP politicians (the member for Kalgoorlie in particular) who expressly supported Hanson’s racist diatribes.

We analysed the Hanson phenomena at our last Congress, in January 1999, shortly after her party won nearly 10% of the primary vote in the federal election.

Hanson was not just some political throwback from Australia’s deeply racist past, though the remnants of entrenched racial prejudice helped Hanson. There was an objective basis for the racist resurgence in the capitalist ruling class’ need to scapegoat minorities for the pain being inflicted by the neo-liberal policies and in the global intensification of imperialist exploitation and oppression.

Opposition to this racist resurgence had to be built without the help of the Labor opposition and all the institutions it has traditionally dominated, including most of the trade unions.

Despite unprecedented public criticism by a host of establishment figures (including the governor-general, former Labor and Liberal PMs, church leaders, etc.) of Howard’s racist ideological interventions, the trade union bureaucracy, based on the most privileged layers of the working class, refused to put up more than a token fight against the racist resurgence and what opposition it did mount was on the basis of the bourgeois opposition to One Nation, an opposition based on the myth of a common, multicultural, Australian national interest linked to the capitalist neo-liberal offensive which the union bureaucracy has sought to adapt to.

There were several instances where union leaderships urged immigration officials to raid workplaces because they suspected illegal immigrants were being employed, a suspicion purely on the basis of the Asian appearance of these workers. Such overt racism by trade union officials sits on top of a more typical refusal to contest racism in the workplace and promotion of implicitly racist economic rationalism.

In this context, the highly successful and internationally publicised high school walkouts against racism, led by Resistance in 1998 assumed great significance. Resistance was broadly applauded and defended and that gave us confidence that we enjoyed, at least on this issue, a much broader support from a cross-section of the population, even if that support was largely passive. We could see we could make a difference, despite the fact that we were still a small force. We began to look for other opportunities to take the initiative for fighting back.

MUA and the working class fightback

Another important struggle took place in 1998 around the attempt by the Howard government to destroy what was traditionally one of the most militant unions in Australia for many years, the Maritime Union of Australia.

An amazing, militant and mass resistance was put up ¾ against the efforts of key union leaders, including those of the MUA ¾ and in the end the government and Patricks Stevedoring failing to smash the MUA. The militant mass pickets in Melbourne and Fremantle had the bosses, their governments, their police and their courts shitting in their pants.

As we reported to the last Congress:

The struggle on the wharves temporarily unleashed powerful forces. Thousands joined the picket lines and the issue stirred up a long quiescent working class. The rapidly broadening support for the pickets was inspiring to all of us and many others. But this mass militant response was only triggered because a certain section of the trade union leadership primarily outside the MUA, was prepared to temporarily take leadership of the campaign and turn impotent "peaceful assemblies" on the docks into militant mass pickets.

However, that section of the trade union leadership pulled back after a while and allowed the ACTU and the MUA leadership to "normalise" the dispute after a particular crafty decision by the courts to allow the locked out MUA members back to work (albeit, temporarily and initially for no pay!).

That section of the union leadership also failed in providing continuing political leadership with their back-to-Labor approach during the last federal election campaign.

Nevertheless we resolved to work closely with those militant sectors of the unions and we subsequently linked up with the militant rank and filers in the MUA and the militant Workers First leadership of the AMWU in Victoria. More of this will be covered in the report on our trade union work.

We also looked at the ruling class’ perspective on the MUA dispute:

Part of the government’s objective with its "unsubtle" attack on the MUA was to test out the broader political will to fight in the union movement. The bosses got a surprise, especially in Melbourne and thousands of militant workers and their supporters had a taste of the potential of proletarian power.

The bosses and their government didn’t get a full victory on the docks but they were applauded pretty unanimously, if discretely, by the ruling class for trying."

This reminder that there was still significant fight in the union ranks and still significant class consciousness in the broader working class did not mean that that we could count of a more generalised fightback against the capitalist neo-liberal offensive being initiated by the union movement ¾ even by its most militant sections.

We had no idea where the next major breakout would take place then but when it did happen in 1999, it turned out we were well placed to play a central leadership role, just as we played in the anti-racist resistance.

East Timor solidarity movement of 1999

Our years of work in building solidarity with the struggles in Indonesia and East Timor paid off during the dramatic aftermath of the referendum in East Timor 16 months ago. Our comrades in ASIET found themselves at the head of a mass movement in solidarity with the East Timorese. But it wasn’t just a case of being in the right place at the right time. Our leadership was also a result of the fact that this was a movement to overturn a long-standing core plank of bipartisan foreign policy ¾ Australian government support and complicity in tin the Indonesian occupation of East Timor since 1975. This was part of the Australian ruling class’ support for the Suharto regime ever since its bloody ascendancy in 1965.

So there we were at the head of tens of thousands of people in the streets opposing the foreign policy of the Liberal-National coalition and Labor. And this movement won its key demand for the eviction of Indonesian troops from East Timor by the UN. Of course the dogmatic left couldn’t see the victory that the East Timorese enjoyed, just because troops from imperialist Australia were a major part of the UN intervention force. But as Marxists recognise, facts always trump dogma.

This brief but victorious mass solidarity movement was not just a significant milestone for our party it was also an important development in Australian politics. It was the second major victory against the Howard government in as many years and it had a much broader consequence. It helped change the course of history in East Timor and in Indonesia (by putting a nail in the Suharto-Habibie regime).

Over the previous quarter century of capitalist neo-liberal offensive, politics had become even more bi-partisan than before (though the ALP, as a capitalist party from its inception, has always had a lot of common policies with the Liberal-National Coalition). Bourgeois journalists talked about the new orthodoxy. So it was no small matter when a bi-partisan policy was completely overturned by a mass movement.

Obviously the victory of the East Timor solidarity movement cannot be credited to the movement here alone. The valiant struggle of the East Timorese over the many years when they faced incredible odds was an essential part of this victory. But of course, the particular opening for the push for a referendum was created by the mass movement in Indonesia that toppled Suharto.

This particular mass movement now seems "a long time ago" to many comrades. But we have to absorb its significance at this Congress because it will help us appreciate the keys to the coming turn in the course of the class struggle.

After this movement we tried to understand its significance. We saw more clearly that we had an opportunity to play a greater leadership role in the social movement than ever before. The dissolution of the Communist Party of Australia and the sharp drift to the right of the organisations and leaders in that party and around it left a vacuum that only our party had a chance of filling. We noted that the Greens, while making modest ground in the electoral sphere, were not organised to lead mass movements in the street. They weren’t training the sort of cadre you need to do this. The rest of the left were still trapped by sectarian dogma and were not seriously organised.

We figured our main chance for a break, at this time, is in the arena of non-parliamentary initiatives. We could see that issues were arising that potentially can mobilise lots of people, but it was clear that unless we can take an initiative these chances will be squandered.

The problem was that the conservativism of the unions and the remnants of the other old social movements which left us with few viable partners for classic "united front" work. And while we were keen to try initiating action, we were also wary of substituting our too few comrades and resources for the movement. The only way out of this we could envisage was to grow bigger as a party, to accumulate more cadre but this was proving difficult in the midst of general working class retreat. That’s roughly where we were up to in our thinking on Australian politics by the June 2000 NC.

S11 and the new vanguard

But last September we saw thousands of activists from the mass social movements of the last three decades joined up with younger activists at the three-day S11 blockade of the World Economic Forum in Melbourne. It was a profoundly empowering event that revitalised the faith in "people’s power" in the hearts and minds of hundreds of thousands more.

There is a danger that comrades underestimate the impact of S11 because most of our day to day contact is with a narrower layer of people than the spectrum involved or touched by S11. Arguing with the organised left, which is part of this narrow layer, can be distorted by their sectarian politics. We have to measure the impact on people outside these layers to appreciate the significance of S11.

Let me read a few extracts from a modest publication, Why We Were There: Stories and Perspectives on S11 by Ballarat People:

(For the sake of our international guests, Ballarat is a small regional city in Victoria, population about 80,000. A small contingent of activists traveled from this town to Melbourne to join the S11 blockade.)

Like many others at the S11 protests, this was my first time. I was a protest virgin. I had been looking forward to September 11 for many months. It was my chance to show the way I feel about the corporations that run everybody’s lives. This was my chance to make a difference.

From early in the morning, I could feel that S11 was going to be something that would change my life forever. I couldn’t have made more of an underestimation of the day.

Here’s another extract:

As I transform these initial thoughts into ink, I wonder where my Bic pen was made. Maybe it was made by an Indonesian woman, she’s numb and in a mechanic state from repetition. That’s alright, she’s rewarded $2 at the end of her day … she’s probably earned 0.1 per cent of the pen I now hold in my hand."

And another:

To be one of so many people gathered for the purpose of three days of peaceful protest is one of the most awe-inspiring experiences imaginable. It is something that changed me. Something that will remain forever etched in superb detail in my psyche… changing my world view from the mute frustrations sparked by a tragic news report to a realisation that I can be an effective part of a larger picture… Now I have realised that my actions and my voice combined with others can make a difference."

I could read you more. But each of you probably has your own experience of the "S11 effect" even if you weren’t there. It may be a response to a showing of one of the S11 videos or a response by a Green Left buyer.

These people were not just getting carried away. They had something to get excited about.

There were four important aspects of S11 and I will go through these in turn.

It indicated that there was a significant radical constituency in Australia today.

This was a significant break from traditional Labor control of the progressive social movements in this country.

The revolutionary left, our tendency in particular, played the decisive leadership role and was seen to do so by thousands of activists.

S11 was part of a powerful, ongoing international movement against neo-liberal globalisation.

Radical constituency

One Green Left Weekly seller exclaimed: "I didn’t know there were so many socialists in Australia". The people he was referring to may not have been socialist but they certainly were seriously disenchanted with corporate rule that is actually existing capitalism.

This disenchantment with corporations, their governments and their self-serving neo-liberal agenda has been a big part of reality in all the imperialist countries for some time. Look at the pitch of Ralph Nader’s Green Party campaign for the US presidency. It was very anti-corporate and it struck a chord in the population of the richest and most powerful country in the world.

Over the last decade anti-corporate sentiment has been growing in the working class in the imperialist countries as they have experienced the effects of neo-liberalism. Just look at the anti-corporate pitch of many movies coming out of corporate Hollywood.

While it would be wrong to mix up anti-corporate consciousness with anti-capitalist or revolutionary consciousness, S11 alerted us to the emergence of a new mass radical vanguard. This layer is mostly young but also includes some veterans from the social movements of a decade or more ago. There is a significant number of politically advanced workers and unionists in this layer. A common feature of these people is that they are agitated on around more than a single issue. Maybe it’s a clutch of single issues but they’ve drawn the obvious conclusion that at the heart of all these issues is the increasingly unrestrained pursuit of corporate profits.

S11 wasn’t the biggest mobilisation in the streets last year. Many more people (more than a million around the country) came out for the Reconciliation Marches ¾ the last gesture of the National Reconciliation Council. But S11 was more politically significant. It represented a more profound dissent against the system.

Nevertheless, the many people who, to one degree or another, showed their dissent on the street against the Howard government’s racism against indigenous Australians is a partial expression of broader layers of dissent that have built up. This broader dissent gives confidence to the more radical layers.

The radical layers of the pent-up dissent against the capitalist neo-liberal offensive are also very cynical about electoral politics. We must register this fact and adjust our priorities accordingly. After S11, we should recognise that we have an edge over the Green parties, which related to S11 exactly like the parliamentary parties that they are. Just read their pamphlet on S11, S11 Spring: Democracy beats the World Economic Forum – Recollection and analysis by Greens MPs and others.

The Greens MPs, Senator Bob Brown in particular, did a pretty good job speaking at and joining the S11 blockades. And they were widely applauded. But they weren’t organising and leading the action and S11 Spring totally ignores the left’s role in the blockade. You’d think from reading it that the blockade just spontaneously came together! It is a telling sign of weakness and political dishonesty to rewrite S11 history in this way.

A break from Labor

We are part of an immensely powerful class, the most powerful exploited class in human history in fact. But misleadership, division and demoralisation prevent this huge latent power from being exercised.

Another important feature of this new radical vanguard is its relation to the broader working class. The ruling class has noted this relationship so they are very concerned about the new movement. As we noted at the October National Committee meeting:

"Today the… movement is still politically well in advance of the mass of the class forces that give it its strength. It is a militant minority movement. But the masses are looking on with growing interest, applauding even. Small detachments from the working class are joining the mobilisations, bigger detachments will follow …"

And why not? The working class has been the target of unrelenting neo-liberal attacks and their traditional leaders have consistently betrayed them

When we talk about misleadership and betrayal of the working class in this country we are really talking about the Labor party. This is the ABC of Australian politics. It should be the common starting point for our assessment among all leftists in this country. They should realise that the main obstacle for independent working class political action in this country is the ALP and a central task of revolutionaries is to try and break the working class from Labor domination.

Labor’s critical role in implementing the capitalist neo-liberal agenda in this country has exposed it before the working class as never before. Labor might still collect the votes of most workers during elections but this is in most cases a vote for a marginally lesser evil. Workers are not idiots, they know what Labor governments deliver today. A Labor electoral victory today does not bring the hopes and dreams that attended the 1972 Whitlam election victory. Today when a Labor government is elected, the working class grits their teeth and braces for betrayal.

This is the political reason behind the break out from Labor control at S11. It wasn’t just bad tactics on the part of the Victorian Trades Hall Council or the ACTU, or even the Bracks Labor government. Some Labor pundits suggested this was the problem after S11. S11 was not a case of technical failure by the Labor leaders. This was a break out born of the cumulative exposure of Labor as another party of the corporate rich.

At S11, the ALP failed to do its traditional job as "minder" of progressive social movements. This function has been eroded by the very public bi-partisan support for neo-liberal globalisation.

We had an earlier taste of this break from Labor’s control in the anti-Pauline Hanson protests, in the militant solidarity with the MUA when it came under attack from Reith and the stevedoring bosses and in the mass solidarity with East Timor last year. But this break has developed further since, especially in Victoria where a couple of powerful unions, the AMWU and CFMEU are prepared to act more independently of Labor than ever before in Australian history. With them are thousands of activists from other social movements and a non-Labor left that has grown in confidence and influence.

The Labor politicians were getting desperate but their wild attempts to attack the new challenge from the left hurt their dwindling public support. The Labor premiers of Victoria and NSW looked like conservative lunatics by trying to label the peaceful and democratic S11 movement "bully boy fascism". Police violence was the only violence at S11 and the police were urged to get more violent by a Labor government.

Labor’s federal leader Kim Beazley chose to lay low on S11. The job of defending the WEF and corporate globalisation was left to Bracks, Peter Costello and John Howard. But the Labor and Coalition arguments that corporate institutions like the WEF are on anything but a mission to boost the profits of the giant corporations were met with public derision. The corporate chiefs at the WEF meeting could only lamely concede that they had to work harder at convincing the public that their objective was to help the world’s poor!

The break out from Labor at S11 was all the greater because it was also a partial break out from Labor’s protectionist "left". As we noted at the October National Committee meeting, one of the most important ways in which S11 was an advance on Seattle and Washington was the relative marginalisation of the protectionist current in the movements. In Seattle the trade unions mobilised independently of the rest of the protesters. They had their own demands, their own march routes and their own tactics. And they had numbers.

At Washington the main trade union contingents sharpened their protectionist message by rallying around the AFL-CIO’s campaign to block the normalisation of trade relations between the USA and China, an utterly reactionary demand. Some unions were addressed by arch-rightwinger Pat Buchanan at their rally.

But at S11 we saw a different balance of forces. An internationalist leadership of the blockade emerged and won the battle for authority, and our comrades were a key component of that leadership. S11 had to be built against the efforts of Leigh Hubbard and the VTHC leadership ¾ the same leadership that led (but eventually contained) the mass pickets in solidarity with the MUA in 1998. Quite a few of the activists at that picket line showed up at the S11 blockade, despite Hubbard’s appeals to stay away.

Role of the revolutionary left

There was certainly a much greater influence of the organised left at S11 than at Seattle, Washington, Philadelphia or Los Angeles and its impact will be noted by the broader anti-corporate movement as well as by its enemies. And in the end, our party played the key organising role, initiating the battles for credibility in the lead up to the blockade, organising the speakers, the marshalling, the stage, etc. But the most of the blockaders did not belong to the organised left. They were students, workers and pensioners who were sick of the bipartisan pro-corporate agenda.

Outside observers saw the great role our comrades played and we should not underestimate this. Real experience is worth much more than a million anti-Communist raves by a handful of sectarian anarchists hogging internet discussion lists!

Why was our role so decisive? It wasn’t just a case of numbers or even of superior organisation. Fundamentally, it was because we were pursuing the revolutionary strategy of independent mass action when the rest of the revolutionary left were bouncing between infantile posturing and the temptation to tail Labor.

The Australian’s political editor Paul Kelly argued that S11 is to the Australian Labor Party what Pauline Hanson was to the Coalition. Labor, he wrote, faces serious troubles on its left flank. The left has found a movement it can unite on and seriously challenge the public credibility of the leaders of the major parties.

John Passant elaborated in the Melbourne Age:

Kim Beazley should be worried. The events in Melbourne last week represent a long-term political threat to the ALP.

Globalisation contributed to the rise of the populist and racist right in Australia. The same pressures and concerns may see the radical and revolutionary left in Australia grow as it proves itself the most consistent opponent of globalisation.

Politically S11 may become the ALP’s One Nation. The issues S11 has highlighted will be the ones that draw people to the various groups that make up the protest movement — and away from the ALP.

The Labor student hacks in NOLS understand what happened at S11. As they bluntly pointed out to comrades at the recent NUS conference, the problem with S11 and M1 is that the far left is leading these movements.

But still some of the far lefts can’t understand the significance of S11 as a break from Labor and the Labor-dominated trade unions. They are stuck is their crazy timeless schema that equate unions with the Labor Party. They think the ALP is a party of the working class, a party of the unions.

They can’t get their dogma-clouded brains around the obvious fact that ¾ as Lenin noted from very far away in 1913 ¾ the ALP is a capitalist party.

"What sort of peculiar capitalist country is this, in which the workers’ representatives predominate in the upper house, and until recently did so in the lower house as well, and yet the capitalist system is in no danger?" Lenin asked after the fall of the first federal Labor government.

Yet today we work with Marxists who insist that the Labor party is a workers’ party, who constantly fall in behind Labor capitalist politicians and think that in doing so they are uniting with the working class. Of course we can understand this muddle-headedness about Labor because we shared some of this muddleheadedness as a party until the mid-1980s.

Fortunately we’re clearer headed now on this score and we know that one of the most significant victories at S11 was the break from traditional Labor control of the mass movements. And we know that it is this precisely that we seek to duplicate and extend in further mobilisations of the new movement against corporate tyranny.

Growing global movement

The fourth important aspect of S11 was that it was part of a growing international movement. After Seattle, Washington, Melbourne, Seoul and Nice we can be confident that this movement will continue for a while yet. One reason for this is the victory at Seattle ¾ the postponement of the new WTO round being pushed by the imperialist governments ¾ has not been undone. Another reason, as comrades pointed out yesterday, this movement brings hundreds of thousands of activists in the imperialist countries into solidarity with a bigger and more longstanding movement against the neo-liberal offensive in the Third World.

We should recognise this as a very important factor. The radical left in Australia owes its origins to the last great global solidarity movement ¾ the anti-Vietnam War movement.

As we saw then, and as was pointed out in the International Work Report yesterday, international solidarity work can have a very radical ideological influence on the usually conservatised working class in the imperialist countries.

For all these reasons we are focussing our attention on keeping this movement alive and moving forward. It offers us a great chance to build the revolutionary forces in this country and this, as we know, will be decisive in any future turn in the class struggle.

M1 proposal

At our October National Committee we decided to push for the next major focus of the movement against corporate tyranny in Australian to be an anti-corporate strike and blockade of the stock exchanges on May 1, 2001. A call for a global strike had been floated earlier by a small left group called Workers Power.

We planned to seek union support for M1 but even the militant union leaderships cannot, on their own, mobilise the thousands of people who came out at S11. We knew we could not rely on the trade unions to make the M1 strike happen.

On the other hand, we also realised that the S11 activists organised in the various alliances cannot call out this constituency simply by declaring a strike, distributing leaflets posters and making internet announcements. Some activists tried to stage hasty sequels to S11 over the last month but each of these actions at best pulled a couple of hundred people.

To get that important mass anti-corporate constituency out in the streets again we knew we needed the appropriate sort of action ¾ one that could capture the imagination of the wide range of people who oppose corporate tyranny and are prepared to do something radical about it. Just another march and rally ¾ or worse, a replication of the dreary trade union ritual that most May Day marches have become in Australia ¾ would not do.

We argued that M1 needs a well-planned act of mass civil disobedience to make it work. Many of the people who turned out at S11 would not have bothered if it was just another rally addressed by trade union officials or ALP politicians who are not interested in changing society very much at all. This expressed the strong desire in this movement to break out from the "normal channels" of dissent.

A successful mass civil disobedience depends on the principle: "When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty". Part of the idea with the blockade of the stock exchange was also to force the corporate ruling class and its governments to try and defend the morally indefensible. They simply could not defend the legitimacy the WTO at Seattle, IMF and the World Bank at Washington and Prague, the WEF in Melbourne and ASEM in Seoul because these institutions had been widely exposed as instruments of corporate exploitation.

A reason for the success of the new global movement is the fact that capitalism has developed to a point that many of its major institutions cannot be publicly legitimised. They are widely perceived by the public as being instruments of exploitation and gross social and ecological harm.

Making a blockade of the stock exchanges the focus of M1 has the advantage of being a universal (at least in every capitalist country) and morally indefensible institution of corporate tyranny. Let the ruling class try and defend the gross greed and speculative vandalism that goes on the stock and finance markets around the world. Let them try and justify the estimated US$1.6 trillion dollars of speculative currency transactions that take place each day. Let them justify the massive movements of capital driven by corporate greed but which dash the futures of millions of people with a tap on a keyboard by some overpaid share trader. Let them justify the job and service-destroying corporate cannibalism that is privatisation.

We calculated that the prospect of disrupting "normal business" in the heart of the business districts of major cities around the world on May 1 was the kind of militant action that could convince individual workers and students -- regardless of what their union officials say ¾ to strike against corporate tyranny on that day and to join a mass reclaiming of a part of the city that the corporate elite consider their own.

This sort of action could also involve the diverse range of political and cultural expressions ¾ that marvelous "festival of the oppressed" character of S11 ¾ in a colourful and spirited expression of popular power. The floats, the banners, flags, bands and dancers can all help get the message across that there is an alternative to global corporate tyranny.

Some other left activists argued for a focus on particular corporations. But most activists in the new movement realise that the problem is beyond the "bad corporate citizenship" of particular global corporations so they were unlikely to get excited about an M1 focussed on a McDonald’s or a Nike store. If we want M1 to be a few hundred people at demonstrations in a few cities, then this sort of target will do. But if we want a true sequel to S11 we’ve got to pick another target, we argued.

The International Socialist Organisation argued that the federal Liberal government should be the next major target for the movement. But this will not bring out the S11 constituency which knows that replacing the Howard Coalition with a Labor government will not worry the corporate chiefs that really run the world.

Well so far we’ve convinced Melbourne’s S11 Alliance to take on the project and it has renamed itself the M1 Alliance. M1 coalitions have also been established in Sydney, Adelaide, Hobart and Perth. Early next year M1 coalitions will probably be set up in Darwin, Brisbane, Canberra and other cities.

In each of these cities we are facing opposition from the union bureaucracy but they are doing this indirectly using student left bureaucrats or anti-DSP sectarians to do their dirty work. We also face a peculiar form of sectarianism from some anarchists who are trying to claim a patent on the new global movement and May 1!

However other left groups are working enthusiastically with us on this project. One of these, Socialist Alternative, has applauded our proposal for mass civil disobedience as a "turn to the left" by our party. (It shows how poorly they understand revolutionary tactics.)

Adapting to ultraleftism?

In the pre-conference discussion some comrades asked if we were adapting to the ultraleft by advocating a mass blockade of the WEF and the stock exchange on May 1.

Certainly our intervention into the S11 Alliance was premised on a tactical choice to side with the liberal, ultraleft section of the movement against the conservative Laborite section because the latter is the bigger and more dangerous enemy. And S11, as a significant mobilisation out of Labor’s control, might not have happened if we had decided to expend most of our energy fighting Melbourne’s ultraleft on tactics.

In Melbourne’s large ultraleft "zoo" there is hardly a party or grouplet that has a clear idea of building this movement independently of the main trade union and Labor leaders. But at S11 we were able to get them to agree on a peaceful, mass blockade tactic. Of course these people were attracted by liberal illusions about "shutting down capitalism for a day" while we were interested in building an independent mass mobilisation against corporate tyranny.

The decision to mobilise the radical if liberal-ultraleft layers against the Labor conservatives was not an adaptation to ultraleftism. It was a tactical choice based on what would concretely advance an independent mass action on a radical, internationalist platform. We could have done better to get the S11 Alliance to articulate that platform on the main poster and leaflets but here the ultralefts’ mono-focus on the "Shut down the WEF" slogan got the better of us. But it wasn’t that great a problem as the blockaders spontaneously raised a whole string of internationalist demands in many imaginative ways.

What does the priority we are placing on building the movement against neo-liberal globalisation mean for our other movement work?

The answer is that we have to make them fit together. Other reports will go through how we want to do this in our trade union and student movement interventions. In this report I will go through some of our other areas of intervention.

First, our solidarity work ¾ which is mainly through Action In Solidarity with Indonesia and East Timor (ASIET), the Committees in Solidarity with Latin America and the Caribbean (CISLAC) and the refugee rights coalitions in a number of cities. The new movement offers new possibilities for this work because "globalising solidarity" is its response to capitalist neo-liberal globalisation.

The close links we have built up with the struggle in Indonesia, East Timor and Latin America ¾ and the ones we are renewing with Palestine solidarity work ¾ are mighty assets in the new movement, which is still poorly connected with the movements in the Third World. But we are still not using these assets properly. This is one of the big challenges for the next period.

In the context of the new global movement, every piece of solidarity propaganda (booklets, films, speakers, exposure tours, conferences, etc) is a means to reach out to the radicalising layers stirred up by this movement. We have to reach out to these layers and not get trapped arguing with the same useless wankers in the cynical student left or the sectarian grouplets. We have to reach out beyond this narrow layer even while working with them in some coalitions. Fractions at this conference will have to work out in detail how we do the reach out through our different areas of intervention.

Perhaps one way of focussing our work and forcing us to maximise our assets is to get a move on building the projected Easter 2002 international solidarity conference. We need to anyway if it is going to be bigger and better than the 1998 Asia Pacific Conference.

We have had some fights in the Refugee Action Collective in Sydney arising out of an anti-democratic, anti-DSP, anti-Cuba sectarian push by some bureaucratic elements from the student movement and two refugees. But we have stood up to them with the solid support of the WCPI-I comrades and we will find a way forward with them and other democratic elements.

Around the country the opportunities for work in this area increase at the Howard government’s racist atrocities against refugees mounts. Comrades in Perth took a good initiative just before Xmas in organising a protest at Perth airport over a deportation of an Iranian refugee.

This is an important campaign that will attract the most serious layers of the large number of people who are angry about the Howard government’s racism. With there being no sign of leadership from the Aboriginal organisations for independent mass action, the refugee issue remains the most likely ongoing mass campaign against racism.

Another area that we should not retreat on is our women’s liberation work. We want to keep the leadership we have held in most of the International Women’s Day Collectives around the country. This year we’ve argued for themes that relate to the anti-neo-liberal globalisation movement. We could intervene in a similar way into NOWSA and Reclaim the Night.

Comrades, I know we are feeling the strain of having so many responsibilities even as we battle the pressures on our own comrades of the general tide of working class retreat. We are agreeing at this conference that we must swim against the tide but also we have to battle certain habits of intervention. There is always a tendency for comrades to intervene in the ways we are used to. And there is a lot of merit in this. But there are changes we have to make and this is what this report will end on.

As I looked back over the Australian political situation reports of National Committee meetings and the Congresses over the last four years, it struck me how much of our discussion was leading us back to the issue of the changes since the dissolution of the old Communist Party of Australia. That’s not surprising. The total capitulation to neo-liberalism and then the liquidation of the biggest and oldest left party in Australia had a big impact on politics in this country. It left the DSP the biggest party on the left but it also left us with the quandary of having lots of responsibility and yet being too small. Well, we are still on this hook and on it we will wriggle until we can grow significantly. But that’s the subject of another report.

The demise of the CPA also changed the terrain of movement interventions. Much of the old movement disappeared when the CPA and most of its fellow travelers exited stage right. For a while we thought this means we can’t do much united front work because there were no potential partners. And that was relatively true for a while. But s11 tells us that we cannot plead that excuse anymore. There are tens of thousands of potential allies and recruits out there.

Most of these people are not in organisations and we have to work differently to get them involved.

How do we do this exactly? Well, we are going to find out as we build M1, we are going to have to learn if this very ambitious project is to come off. But here are some ideas:

First, we have to drop any idea that M1 can be built simply by putting up posters and hoping for a good turnout. Even the most Herculean paste-up effort by comrades will not do the job. The very idea of the strike/blockade has to be popularised and sold to the radical S11 constituency and that will take more than simply advertising the time and place.

Second, we need to get some new activists. Central to this effort will be getting out with video showings, stalls, etc but also we have to pitch ideas for participation that can attract activists at different political levels and with different focuses. Some people are more interested in working in the unions, doing political cultural actions (music, giant puppets, street theatre, etc), building legal support teams, medical teams and so on. We’ve got to invest time and energy into winning activists and winning allies. We’ve got to find the confidence and skills to convince and inspire them into becoming part of M1.

Third we have to provoke the other side into a public argument about M1: get the police, pollies, school principals and conservative union bureaucrats complaining about M1. We’ve got to get them to defend and justify the stock exchange, the corporations, etc.

These three ideas are just a start. Let’s have some more ideas in discussion at this Congress and after.

Comrades, the focus of this report has been on the political development of the most politically advanced layers in our society. These layers have a significance far greater than their numbers might suggest. The events of the last three years ¾ in particular the anti-Hanson protests, the MUA defence campaign, the East Timor solidarity movement and S11 ¾ have proved this. Those events, taken together, also suggest that we have a great potential today to accumulate revolutionary cadre, even though the general tide of the class struggle is one of working class retreat. The dialectic of retreat and offensive has revealed itself. The advanced elements might be a minority of our class today but they prepare the way for a future turn in the general tide of class struggle.

Summary

There was a lot of discussion about M1 and most comrades seem pretty confident. There also was a note of worry and that’s fair enough. M1 is a very ambitious project and its success depends on us having picked the moment right and having a set of tactical plans capable of mobilising the radical S11 constituency again. We are trying to catch a political wave and there is always a risk that we might fail. The strike/blockade combination may seem a bit "over the top" but the calculation is that it can work in the current political situation.

One alternative suggested to organising a blockade of the stock exchanges (and possibly nearby corporate HQs) on May 1 is the idea of targeting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting scheduled for late this year. The problem is that CHOGM’s connection with the global neo-liberal offensive is not so clear. The imperialists haven’t used this institution overtly to advance the neo-liberal agenda and past CHOGMs mainly focussed on holding together loosely countries that were once part of the former British Empire. The last major protests that took place outside a CHOGM in Australia were in Brisbane and focussed on Aboriginal rights. The "connector" was the call by some black activists for African nations to boycott the meeting because of racism in Australia. I can’t see how it’s a good target for the new movement.

The question of what issues and demands to put forward came up. The four key issues, as outlined in the International Situation Report, are the demands for the cancellation of the Third World debt; the abolition of the IMF, World Bank and WTO; opposition to imperialist countries using tariffs and quotas to close Third World access to their markets; and opposition to corporate control and abuse of science and technology. In addition to this we need to introduce demands that express the local dissent against neo-liberalism in Australia, such as opposition to privatisation of social services and public assets and abolition of the Workplace Relations Act, opposition to racism against Aborigines and refugees, etc.

Finally, the prioritisation of M1 is also a prioritisation of our extra-parliamentary interventions over any electoral interventions at this time. We are still going to participate in state and federal elections (as will be outlined in the Party Building Report) but its not going to be our main focus this year. For us to make more of our revolutionary electoral tactics we have to win more authority in the extra-parliamentary sphere. This was the case with the Scottish Socialist Party, whose electoral work today is built upon the leadership of the anti-poll tax campaign led

by Tommy Sheridan and Scottish Militant. Only this can give our election work the boost it needs and only this can make it clear to wider layers that we participate in elections to parliament with extra-parliamentary objectives and with not a skerrick of faith in these institutions of bourgeois rule.

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