by John Tracey
I paint this essay with very broad brushstrokes. I am aware that there are many exceptions as well as different degrees amongst different groups regarding my various generalisations. This essay does not attempt to provide an accurate historical record but rather to provoke consideration of some general issues of the history of the Australian “Left”.
The Australian ethos is anti-racist, within its own definitions of what racism is. Australia’s anti-discrimination laws affirm all Australians’ right to be white (culture, not skin colour), equal under the sovereign legal and parliamentary system modeled on the English law. All rights and interests outside the white law including rights specifically attributable to an ethnic group such as rights inherent in Aboriginal customary law, are considered discriminatory, therefore illegal. The High Court of Australia relies on anti-discrimination legislation in its blanket extinguishment of Aboriginal customary law as a law pertaining to a particular race.
Notions of “racism”. “equality” and “justice” that are constructed within the cultural and legal frameworks of the dominant colonial society will only affirm colonial domination, whether those frameworks are conservative, liberal democratic or radical socialist.
I claim the socialist tradition in Australia, including its anti-racism campaigns, is as much a part of colonisation of this Aboriginal country as the church and state have been.
My first critique of the radical left is a general one, not specific to Aboriginal issues, is that it tends to present a philosophical critique of history without any real engagement with historical forces.
When the radical left does attempt to engage in historical force, be it the union movement, the Aboriginal movement, the environment movement, the peace movement, local communities etc. it does so by way of recruiting to its philosophy over and above any inherent agendas of those movements, using the real struggles of other men and women as exemplary platforms for its own ideological evangelism rather than joining and supporting those struggles on their own terms.
I endorse Marx’s famous statement “religion is the opiate of the masses”. This of course was not an arrogant proposition of atheism as it is too often used, it was a critical analysis of the consciousness of the oppressed/dispossessed person and the illusions they embrace to channel the pain of their historical circumstance – “its (religion’s) universal basis of consolation and justification”.
But today in Australia the church does not have the same social role as it had in 19th century Europe. Today hardly anyone takes the church seriously. Modern capitalism has provided a myriad of other opiates to replicate the historical escapist purpose of the church.
One of the opiates that has replaced religion today is ideological politics which has created an escapist etherial framework by which to explain existential angst. Ideological politics has developed a program of rituals (protest campaigns) that serve no purpose but “consolation and justification” of its members, just as the 19th century European church did.
Ideological politics, including classical notions of class struggle, has become a mechanism of detachment from history rather than a mechanism of clearly seeing it and engaging with it. Political power has been replaced by political opinion.
The fundamental flaw of the Australian socialist movement has been its religious commitment to the working class as the holy class of history and the primary agency of historical change. This has made Australian radicalism blind to the historical experience and latent power of Australia’s underclass of slaves, rural peasants and the urban unemployed.
Today the working class is affluently numb, dependently tied to capitalist objectives through the new unionism, superannuation investments and home mortgages. Only the underclass has an inherent motivation to seek to change the status-quo and has nothing to lose, this is where dialectical leadership is.
Marx, Engels and Lenin all identified the urban working class as the primary agents of history. They rejected the notions of land rights held by indigenous peasants, dismissing them as either bourgeois notions of private property or historically anachronistic elements of a less evolved society. Lenin saw peasants only in terms of potential workers. When the needs of rural peasants clashed with those of the urban working class in Revolutionary Russia, the needs of the working class took precedence in all cases. The Red Army killed over six million indigenous Russian Peasants by taking their food from them to feed the army and industrial workers.
The Aboriginal worker is a new phenomenon in Australia and still a minority of the whole Aboriginal nation. Prior to the invasion Aboriginal people were not workers, they were owners of the means of production engaging in a free market. Since the invasion Aboriginal people have been the lumpen proletariate – either unemployed, slaves or the small few that managed to survive on their land one way or another – rural peasants. Except for the minority of Aboriginal workers today, the bulk of Aboriginal Australia are still the lumpen proletariate.
The basic Marxist class framework does not come from the historical experience of Aboriginal Australia and ignores or excludes the relevance of the lumpen proletariate in the historical dialectic – therefore dismissing Aboriginal power except as assimilated workers.
The white worker/activist is of a different class and historical experience, by Marxist definition, to the Aboriginal masses. Historical material engagement with Aboriginal Australia is not a matter of class solidarity as proclaimed by the radical left but inter-class relationship. Defining Aboriginal people and history as working class, as today’s left does, in the context of a clear and obvious class divide is as patronising as it is naive.
I am not saying throw the Marxist baby out with the bathwater. The baby is the absolute, universal truth of dialectical historical materialism. This is the way, the truth and the life! The bathwater is the cultural circumstance and scientific theory to which comrades Karl and Fred theoretically applied this basic truth, that is – the status-quo consciousness of bourgeoise urban European society and racist social Darwinism, the latter being the basis of Marx and Engel’s historical science and evidence of the working class as the midwifery of history.
To engage with the historical circumstance of Aboriginal Australia within an intellectual framework of dialectical historical materialism does require an abandonment of the ideological assumptions and traditions of the European working class, including the the primacy of the urban working class and irrelevancy of the Lumpen proletariate as agents of historical change. Yet the radical left clings to these things as the philosophical basis of its political existence.
European socialist thought based on the historical pre-eminence of the working class is racist.
The white Australia policy was born at the Eureka Stockade, institutionalised in the great shearers strike and legislated by the ALP. Racism is the cultural heritage of the Australian left.
The racism of Australian socialism has been denied, repressed, justified and euphamised in exactly the same way as right wing Australia has jingoistically denied the truth of where it comes from.
The Australian Aboriginal struggles of the late twentieth century demanded land rights, self determination and an independent economic base. The goal was ownership of the means of production, not workers’ rights. Socialist ideology has perceived and portrayed the Aboriginal struggle in terms of mainstream political constructs such as equal wages, equal rights and anti-racism and consequently failed to understand or embrace the essence of the Aboriginal struggle in its own historical materialist, economic terms.
Perhaps the first major positive engagement of the Australian Left with the Aboriginal struggle was the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and aligned unions’ campaign for equal wages for Aboriginal stock-workers that coincided with the Gurindgi strike and walk off in 1966. The Gurindgi were demanding land rights. The CPA and unions were demanding equal wages.
The union campaign was successful and hailed by the left as a great victory. However the consequences were that Aboriginal stock-workers were sacked as bosses chose to hire white workers if they had to pay white wages. The racism of white Australia was not factored into the equal wages plan. The Gurindgi and stock-workers across the country were dispossessed of the land on which they had previously lived and worked. The circumstance of the Aboriginal stock-worker changed from a traditional owner living on and taking care of their country, able to hunt and gather to survive beyond rations, to a town fringe-dweller either unemployed or part of a constant pool of casual labour to be picked up and dropped off when needed.
What the left celebrated as a victory in their own terms of reference was in fact a major setback to the material and cultural wellbeing of Aboriginal people. The victory, from the Gurindgi point of view, was the handing back of their land by Gough Whitlam which had nothing to do with equal wages but was more to do with the Gurindgi becoming owners of the means of production and engaging in the economy as capitalists, not workers or slaves.
There is no doubt that the mass support in white urban Australia that was generated by the CPA and unions was a major contribution to Whitlam’s Gurindgi handover and Fraser’s enactment of the Northern Territory Land Rights Act – I do not want to underplay the significance of this or leave it out of the story. However Northern Territory land rights was in essence an unintended by-product of the left’s equal wages campaign and came about by the Gurindgi using the left as a platform for their own agendas and priorities, not a success of the plans and perspectives of the left itself.
Despite the victories of land rights legislation in the Northern Territory, Aboriginal stock-workers in every other state were dispossessed from their lands by the equal wages victory.
From the Gurindgi walk-off until the Bicentennial protests of 1988, the CPA and aligned unions maintained strong connections in Aboriginal Australia and played key support roles in all of the land rights protests of the 1970s and 80s. The CPA played a leadership role in recruiting the broad church of the left into the Aboriginal movement.
The last great campaign of the CPA, before it began imploding, was their de-colonisation workshop campaign that educated union groups, women’s groups, church groups, university groups etc., especially in Qld but I believe it occurred in Sydney, Melbourne, Alice Springs and elsewhere too. These workshops were about identifying colonial assumptions and frameworks in ourselves and being able to look at the Aboriginal struggle on its own terms without colonial filters.
These workshops were not philosophical adventurism, they arose out of the real historical engagement of the left with Aboriginal Australia over two decades and the needs identified by Aboriginal people and leftists working together in political struggle.
While “de-colonisation” became the correct line and dominant framework for left involvement in the Aboriginal protests of the 1980s, this new evolution of Australian socialism was aborted with the demise of the CPA and the consequent atrophying of its networks shortly afterward.
At least in regards to the Aboriginal struggle, and probably across the board, I believe the collapse of the CPA networks deprived the Left of its eldership and collective memory. The lessons learnt, the systems developed, the personal connections built over time have now gone.
Today the radical Left and the moderate Left including the Greens, unions and neo-Trotskysist grouplets have all evolved largely independently from the continuity and momentum of the Left movement that engaged with Aboriginal Australia in the second half of the twentieth century. Different people, different organisations, different histories. Of course there are many elder individuals who maintain friendships born of the struggles of the 1970s, 80s and 90s but these connections remain personal rather than manifesting in cross-cultural political power as they did last century.
Today the Australian left has incorporated Aboriginal issues such as deaths in custody, the NT intervention and “close the gap” into its overall canon of slogans and campaigns. It has framed the suffering and circumstance of Aboriginal Australia within its own ideological frameworks and modes of operation, just as patronising white supporters did in the 1960s in organisations such as the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) that campaigned for the minimal and tokenistic changes of the 1967 referendum. The white ideological control of the black agenda had to be transcended in order for the black leadership to arrive at demands outside the dominant paradigm such as land rights, self determination and an independent economic base.
Just as the white left had to learn to work with and take direction from an autonomous Aboriginal leadership and agendas in the 1970s and 80s, today’s left needs to learn anew how to engage meaningfully with Aboriginal Australia on Aboriginal Australia’s own terms. It needs to spend as much time organising in Aboriginal communities as it does in universities, under the leadership of Aboriginal people rather than white ideologues and bureaucrats. From this organising it will have the direct experience to understand the Aboriginal struggle and help deliver its demands to the broader society. Without such real and direct engagement in Aboriginal life, the left are just as ignorant as the rest of society and its grasp of Aboriginal issues will necessarily be shallow and tokenistic.
The central issue of the relationship between the working class left and Aboriginal society is not cross-cultural awareness. While this is an important issue it is not really difficult to deal with. The main obstacle to the left’s relevant engagement with Aboriginal Australia is class – the different life circumstance and perspectives of the relatively affluent working class and the extreme poverty of the Aboriginal underclass. The left’s so-called solidarity is really just parasitic commentary on the suffering of Aboriginal people, a voyeuristic cerebral acknowledgement of pain not unlike the church’s prayers. When pain and suffering as well as dollars and resources are shared equally, or at least just a bit, between affluent workers and the Aboriginal underclass, then there will be a real understanding of what solidarity means.
At present the broad left, from liberals to revolutionaries objectify Aboriginal suffering as a welfare or justice policy issue. Instead of forging real sharing relationships between workers and Aboriginal people, the left campaigns for more social workers and welfare services or legislative change of some sort. Engagement with the real suffering of real people is not a relevant consideration for the political left, only the opinions and policy about that suffering are embraced.
The Australian left needs to return to the drawing board for its basic ideological framework and its program of action if it has any intention of being relevant to the Aboriginal struggle. If however it is content to offer detached ideological commentary about Aboriginal suffering, nothing needs to change as it is doing this quite effectively now.