Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Alliance Voices, Revolution and Transition

In light of recent developments (I'd argue both the the continuing crisis in Europe, the advancing revolutionary situation in the Middle East / North Africa (MENA) region, and the continued development on the Latin American alternative, which are all showing in practice the strengths and limitations of different approaches to the question of revolutionary leadership and unity, as well as the subjective ones of the Socialist Alternative's "turn to unity"), there has been some interesting discussion in the lead-up to the next national conference of the Socialist Alliance. I'm going to look at some particular contributions from Alliance Voices, and some related posts, as part of the process of working on some PCD of my own. There have been other good contributions so far - including this piece from three leaders of Resistance which is well worth reading - that I won't comment on just yet.

Nick Fredman, a member of the Alliance from Melbourne branch, has put forward an amendment to the Towards a Socialist Australia (TASA) document to tighten up some sections - particularly, incorporating an explicit call for "Revolution" in 'How will we get there?'. This is, in part, driven by the call put out by Socialist Alternative for unity amongst "Revolutionaries", counterposing it against unity with the "Reformists", whoever that might mean (during discussion at a recent event in Sydney Josh Lee from Socialist Alternative did say that this didn't mean the Alliance...) - which has triggered seemingly endless back and forth on social media.

Graham Matthews, from Sydney West branch, has responded with an argument that the use of the R word is implicit in the TASA document and our perspectives, isn't necessary, and puts up barriers in actually regrouping working class leadership:
"there is certainly no evidence that an important task facing the (revolutionary) socialist movement in Australia today, is convincing large numbers (or even relatively small numbers) of reformist socialists that socialism can only be won through extra parliamentary struggle and, ultimately, social revolution...
In this context in Australia then, where the level of the crisis is so acute, yet where the forces of working class resistance are so defuse and ideologically confused - why would the (relatively) few organised socialists, want to place an ideological and organisational barrier between themselves and those who are coming into political motion?
Peter Boyle, from Sydney central branch (and national co-convener of the Alliance), has weighed in on this debate and other proposals arguing that making our revolutionary politics explicit in material like TASA isn't a barrier, but it shouldn't be done just to defend the Alliance from accusations of "Reformism". He argues that we should explain revolution in a way which draws on Australia's history and the real context of today:
our guide is not just what we (or others in the left) understand, or want, but also where the consciousness of broader layers moving into struggle against the capitalist system is at... most people come to a stronger realisation of [the] need to organise systematic resistance to the violence of the minority only in the process of struggle.
Peter's piece references and draws on Peter Camejo, whose work I think needs to be included in this discussion, particularly Liberalism, Ultraleftism, Mass Action.

There's another that's come up in discussion - Trotsky's Transitional Program, and whether or not it should have any bearing on this discussion, which I wanted to weigh in on a little bit. Before that, I think it's initially worth noting the following quote from Doug Lorimer in the introduction to the Transitional Program published by Resistance Books:
Under certain circumstances, agitation around any of these different types of demands can serve to mobilise working people in mass anti-capitalist struggles. It is the mobilising potential of any of these types of demands at any particular conjuncture in the class struggle that is of primary interest to revolutionists. It is a basic fact of political life that people who are united with others in struggle are more open to radical ideas and new forms of action than those who are atomised and quiescent.
Omar Hassan from Socialist Alternative, who took up this point of transitional demands in a note on Facebook (apparently in reference to a comment made by an Alliance comrade at a recent event in Melbourne) argued that the Transitional Program is hugely problematic and the divide between our ultimate goal and the struggles of today "cannot be synthesised on paper, they must be embodied in the traditions of a revolutionary party." I find this rather problematic. He is certainly right to say "demands don’t create revolutionary crises, objective circumstances do" - but there is a whole world of advances the working class in Australia could be making short of capitalising on a revolutionary crisis to overthrow capitalist property relations. In the words of Trotsky, "transitional" demands lead to "one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat" - but there is a whole lot of struggles to be had between now and that final point which can also be considered "transitional", and it's crucial that we make some advances on that front now. Just because Trotsky misread the revolutionary potential of the impending crisis in 1930 doesn't invalidate the concept as a whole.

Many of the examples of transitional demands Trotsky counterpoises to the "minimum" demands of the Stalinists - indexation of wages to inflation, open the corporate books, no secret diplomacy - are struggles that have at specific times or in limited ways, since been won (or forced upon our rulers, in the case of WikiLeaks) - and although this hasn't been a "bridge" to worldwide socialism yet, at times times they have helped to galvanise various other struggles - WikiLeaks played key roles in the change in government in Kenya or the overthrow of Ben Ali in Tunisia, for example.

"We cannot do away with the schism between minimum and maximum program," states Omar - yet the value of the concept of transitional demands is in approaching the fight for minimum demands - ie reforms - in a strategic way which helps to develop the power of the working class and does actually connect our struggles for "minimum" demands today to our broader strategic vision. To strike at the "weakest point of capitalist hegemony" is a good aim, but to me it only seems of use if we're actually using that strike to develop momentum, win recognition, and actually begin to solve the question of leadership by drawing the broadest possible forces into radical struggle in order to further radicalise them.

This is to me an example of a transitional demand - one which may or may not be able to granted under capitalism, but which brings socialist revolution closer. That is our goal as revolutionaries, after all - for our struggles today to be hastening revolutionary overthrow of class society. And history has shown us that victories in certain key social movements has led to a wave of increased class struggle on a whole variety of fronts - from the success of civil rights & indigenous rights movements in the US and Australia helping to catalyse the upsurge of the 60s and 70s, to the overthrow of Ben Ali & Mubarak empowering already rampant trade union struggle, civil rights struggles by minorities, the women's movement or those of the shanty towns.

This isn't a shortcut to revolution; it's a perspective that putting our shoulder to the wheel in struggles today and making them as successful as possible, not only propagandising about the dictatorship of the proletariat from the sidelines, is the best method of convincing people of the need for a revolution and winning them to a revolutionary party.

Omar and I are both active campaigners for Palestine solidarity here in Australia; I think the demands of the BDS movement are a perfect example of transitional demands. The three pillars of the movement - an end to the apartheid wall, the right of return for refugees, and full civil rights for Palestinians inside Israel - are difficult to imagine ever being granted by the present existence of Israel in its current form as an apartheid state and imperialist attack dog for the region, as their implementation would critically undermine the possibility of maintaining that project with a facade of democracy. But this doesn't mean the struggle for those demands is a dead end reform we should stop fighting for - the inability of Israel to grant those reform helps to develop and broaden awareness of the nature of Zionism as a racist ideology underpinning imperialist dominance in the MENA region. And any cave-ins from the Israeli state on these points will curb the power of imperialism in the region, even if only fractionally.

The rallying cries of the Russian revolution - peace, land, bread - were certainly key transitional demands (nobody's maximum program), and those for real democracy, redistribution of wealth and dignity being raised in the MENA region today likewise fit the bill. Tad Tietze, in the discussion following Omar's post, argued that a demand like climate justice is a similar example of such a transitional demand to struggle for today; at one point this was the rallying cry for a movement of thousands, and although the last two years have seen a decline in such activism, I think every new climate disaster reflects the burning vitality of that demand.

How does this all relate to the above discussion about the goals and politics of the Alliance? Omar gives a throwaway comment that "it is also relevant because those seeking to justify the Alliance program seek to hide behind references to their alleged transitionality." This comment (seeming at odds with the above comments that the Alliance isn't reformist) does reflect a certain truth, but I feel it's being expressed as a pre-emptive hostility over a different tactical perspective for Australia today; a different approach to the question that's been raised - what role should the party play in making the revolution? And what does this mean for our activism today? I think this question is shaping the above Alliance Voices debates, as much as Alternative's call for unity.

The certain truth: I do agree with Peter and Nick that we should be including explicit statements that our ultimate goal is working class revolution in the Alliance constitution or our chief propaganda tool, the TASA document - but Graham is right that the key thing to be done today is win more to socialism, not convince other socialists of the correct path, and that requires we throw our energy into the struggles at the grassroots today, particularly aiming for the most transitional demands to strip the emperor's clothes from Rinehart, Palmer and the whole capitalist system and neoliberal offensive, if we want to educate and unite the class-conscious workers into a force which can take advantage of real revolutionaries opportunities.

But the important thing isn't uniting on our "maximum" program - for now, it should be left at the revolutionary overthrow of class society by the masses. In this low ebb of class struggle, it's far more important that we focus our attention on the immediate "minimum" & "transitional" kinds of tasks to regrow a pole of class struggle today. It's heartening to see the Socialist Alternative turn to unity and agree that we should unite on "a socialist program for Australia today"; but is that program to win more ones and twos to Marxism, or is it to build class struggle as a whole and win a whole generation of activists? As a Marxist in the Alliance, my perspective is certainly for the latter.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Academics right to uphold Israeli boycott

Resistance Sydney released this statement on December 14. 

The Sydney University (USYD) Resistance club condemns the attack by the Australian on the university’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies for its decision to uphold a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

The head of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Jake Lynch, declined a request from Israeli academic Dan Avnon to include him as a contact on his application for an academic exchange. His refusal upheld the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign which refuses academic, cultural and sporting institutions in protest against Israeli apartheid.

Christopher Pyne, federal MP for Sturt, alleged the decision would open the university up to "ridicule".

In fact, USYD would be joining other universities around the world, such as the University of Johannesburg who last year decided to end all relationships with Israeli academic institutions.
This year campus representative bodies across the world have also decided to divest from contracts with companies that profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

The Coalition’s attack is an attempt to intimidate universities and academics of conscience out of supporting Palestinian civil society’s call for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel.

“Christopher Pyne is on the wrong side of history”, said USYD Resistance club president Patrick Harrison.

“The fact that he is attacking academic freedom by intimidating those of conscience who heed the Palestinian call to break all ties with Israeli institutions means that he’s learnt nothing from the history books. Apartheid South Africa eventually crumbled with the support of peoples of conscience all around the world, including Australia.

“Mr Pyne’s allegation that the decision has anything to do with Dan Avnon's Jewish religion or Israeli nationality is absurd. His implicit allegation that the University department’s decision is anti-Semitic is also offensive. The Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies hosted prominent Israeli historian Ilan Pappe in September.”

"Interestingly, the Australian isn’t interested in reporting on the major links between the University of Sydney and the University of Technion in Haifa, Israel, which is heavily involved in military research. This academic link included an official exchange program.

“Earlier this year, the online journal New Matilda exposed the systematic attempts by the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) to influence campus politics by providing expenses-paid tours to Israel to student politicians. This wasn't reported by the Australian either.
Clearly the Australian has an editorial bias against any criticism of Israel," said Harrison. “This is despite the fact that most Australians do not support Israel’s attacks on Palestine and that government’s flouting of international law with its illegal settlement building.”

The Australian reported on a protest organised by the Palestine Action Group on December 9 calling on consumers to boycott Israeli businesses which profit from the occupation of Palestine.

"Two people, including one well-known Islamophobe, racially targeted one young pro-Palestine campaigner and aggressively taunted and insulted him. One of these men shouldered him," said Pip Hinman, activist with Stop the War Coalition.

These provocations — in full view of the Australian reporter and photographer, and the JWire reporter — went unreported by either publication.

“The Australian's reporters, Christian Kerr — who authored many of Murdoch's attacks on the Greens support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign — and Rick Morton wrote nothing about the outrageous provocations and aggression by the Islamophobe. Instead, their article alleged that “tempers frayed” because annoyed shoppers wanted to listen to Christmas carols,” said Hinman.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Review: Leila Khaled

Submitted for publication to Green Left Weekly

Leila Khaled: Icon of Palestinian Liberation
Sarah Irving
Pluto Press, 2012

As one of the first of the Revolutionary Lives series of critical biographies published by Pluto Press, Leila Khaled: Icon of Palestinian Liberation couldn't have chosen a better focus. The book opens with the image of Khaled preparing to board and hijack flight TWA 840 on August 29, 1969; however, far more time is spent on the full span of her life, from fleeing her home as a four year old during the Nakba of 1948 to her years of work on the Palestinian National Council and in the General Union of Palestinian Women after her involvement in two hijackings.

In many ways, Leila Khaled: Icon of Palestinian Liberation is as much the story of the history of the struggle for Palestinian liberation and the role the left – particularly the role the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – played in it, as it is the story of Khaled's dedicated and tireless career.

Sarah Irving's work is a must-read for anyone wishing to study Khaled's life; the primary source for many of the sections, particularly those beyond the notorious hijackings of 1969 and 1970, are a week of interviews that Irving conducted with Khaled in her Amman home in 2008 and subsequent communications. These interviews shed light on a variety of topics which have been poorly documented elsewhere, such as the role played by the organised women's movement amongst the Palestinian refugees in the neighbouring countries of Jordan and Lebanon; Irving compares them with the occasionally differing records of events held by others on the Palestinian left or in other published accounts to tease out the different narratives of the resistance's history.

Khaled's comments on the jailing or resignation of cadres of the Popular Front in the 1990s and the rise of Hamas as the alternative to the dominant Fatah leadership, as well as her positive assessment of the role the Arab Spring revolutions and the consequent March 15 movement in Palestine, also show her as a Marxist thinker still firmly grounded in the Palestinian struggle of today. She raises the key demand of the Palestinian left today – reconciliation of Hamas and Fatah, writing that the national split has "weakened the Palestinians (vis-a-vis) Israel, and also weakened Palestinian human rights on the international level."

The biography also draws together a range of perspectives on Khaled and fellow "women revolutionary fighters", and the barriers of perception they had to break through as "good Arab women." While still affirming Khaled's perspective that "[women] are under occupation, and in that we are equal in oppression with men... [but] at the same time there is social oppression, so women participate... in the national struggle and also in the social struggle," Irving considers feminist critiques of women's role within national liberation movements and references the different perspectives advanced by Palestinian women on the subject.

Khaled finishes on the future – despite the many setbacks for the movement she has lived through Khaled insists the conflict will "work itself out". Despite her status as a symbol of resistance to injustice, her humour and optimism makes Leila Khaled: Icon of Palestinian Liberation an inspiring read – and one well worth picking up for any supporter of the Palestinian cause.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Siliana uprising wins demands from government

Submitted for publication to Green Left Weekly.

Once again, protesters have taken to the streets in Tunisia to demand the transitional government of Hamad Jebali fulfil the demands of the January 14 revolution which overthrew dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

The regional city of Siliana, located 130 kilometres south-west of national capital Tunis and capital of the Siliana governorate, was rocked by days of protests over the lack of investment and jobs in the region.

A demonstration called by the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) on November 27 assembled at the office of the regional government to begin a general strike in the region, calling for more jobs, local development and the resignation of Governor Ahmed Ezzine Majjoubi , who protesters felt was "unresponsive" to their needs.

The demands of the protest reflect the lack of real change felt by ordinary Tunisians since the uprising against Ben Ali and the election of the interm troika government, led by the islamist Ennahda party. Unemployment continues to rise, reaching 18 percent in March, while Jebali's promise to create 25,000 on taking office remains unfulfilled.

And police repression of dissent, virulent under the old regime, continues. The November 27 protest and general strike, which drew 5000 to the street, came underbirdshot pellet fire from the police, resulting in two days of running battles in the streets.

Jebali told a press conference on November 29 that the police force was used in response to "throwing stones, Molotov cocktails, burning of state institutions and damaging public establishments".

However, Human Rights Watch reported on December 1 that there was no evidence of incendary devices being deployed – and over 210 birdshot injuries were reported to the local hospital, including 20 cases of eye injuries which required treatment in Tunis.

On December 2, the government announced it had reached a deal with the demonstrators. AlJazeera's Hashem Ahelbarra reported: "the governor is going to be replaced by his deputy... then they have to tackle the biggest issue which is developing this region where people have been complaining for decades about marginalisation, discrimination and also lack of genuine will from the previous government, including this one, to implement dramatic change in the living standards of the local population."

The plight of the under-developed interior region has gained much sympathy all across the nation. Solidarity demonstrations were held by UGTT supporters in both other regional areas and the larger coastal cities; throughout the Siliana governorate, demonstrators continued to clash with police across December 1 and 2.

The cause has also been championed by the united left Popular Front, whose members play a leading role in the UGTT. On December 1, they joined with members of the secular centre-left Republican party to demonstrate in Tunis, demanding the resignation of the Interior Minister Ali Larayedh.

For their activity, left activists have drawn the ire of supporters of Ennahda. On December 4, unionists in the UGTT office in Tunis, preparing for a march to commemmorate the murder of independance leader and unionist Farhat Hached, were attacked by hundreds of Islamists with knives and sticks, reported a Reuters witness.

Over 2000 unionists later rallied outside the government's headquarters, where further clashes with Islamists took place.

In response to the repression and the escalating social struggle, the UGTT has called a general strike for the 13th of December. The AFP reported on December 5 that the demands of the strike would include the dissolution League for the Protection of the Revolution, which state-run TAP reported were responsible for December 4's attack.

The League called a protest in Tataouine on October 18, in which Lotfi Naguedh, co-ordinator of the ex-regime party Nidaa Tounes, died. It's believed the League is associated with ruling party Ennahda; Beji Caid Essebsi, who assumed the role of Prime Minister after Ben Ali's overthrow and is the chairmain of Nidaa Tounes, alleged members ofEnnahda participated in the October 18 march.

A general strike has also been called in Sidi Bouzid, home suburb of martyred fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi and a scene of ongoing demonstrations and strikes since the revolution, for December 6.

Tunisia Live reported Sliman Rouisi, of the regional branch of the UGTT, as saying: "The main demands of trade unionists in Sidi Bouzid are the following: invite the authorities to put an end to these violations against the UGTT, follow-up and hold accountable the criminals, who attacked the unionists yesterday, who attacked the unionists yesterday, and dissolve the League for the Protection of the Revolution because it has committed a crime against the unionists."

In the leadup to the second anniversary of Bouazizi's immolation on December 17, pressure continues to mount on Ennahda and the ruling troika to fulfil their rhetorical support for the January 14 revolution.

And so long as the troika fails to fulfil the demands for a new economic and social agenda for Tunisia, space will continue to open for the left to pose a real alternative.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Book of the year - After Zionism

Green Left Weekly asked me, once again, to contribute to a list of books of the year. This time around, I've chosen After Zionism, co-edited by Antony Loewenstein (who also contributed his favourite choice, The Silenced Majority: Stories of Uprisings, Occupation, Resistance and Hope), and Ahmed Moor. I didn't have the space to draw out any of the themes of the different essays - Ilan Pappe's look at apartheid inside Israel draws a very different conclusion to Jeff Halper's argument for a regional national federation like the EU - so if you can get your hands on a copy and read the different arguments for yourself, do so.

After Zionism is a compilation of the different strands of thought that seek to challenge the dominant narrative in the diplomatic community – that the only possible solution to the occupation of Palestine is with two states. Its dedication – "to the Palestinians and Israelis who deserve better" – and the presence of a variety of Israeli, Palestinian and other voices reflects the shifts that have occurred since the breakdown of the Oslo accords and the second intifada, and the escalating horror of the status quo.

Speaking at events in Australia, co-editor Antony Loewenstein has been quick to point out that the book does not seek to hold the solution to the conflict, but to ask the question: What could the alternatives look like? The contributors do not all argue the same vision – but the evidence presented across the essays, considering the question globally and regionally as well as within the Israeli and Palestinian communities, together builds a compelling argument that the two-state solution is dead.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Education is under attack - stand up, fight back!

Originally published at Green Left Weekly.

Around Australia, attacks on tertiary education have continued throughout 2012, with an ideological onslaught against the idea of well-funded public education being led by proponents of neoliberalism.

In July, Fred Hilmer, vice-chancellor of UNSW and chair of the Group of 8 Universities, a coalition of university managements, called for total fee deregulation and “cutting red tape”.

In an address to the National Press Club, Hilmer signaled that university managements intend to “play in the public policy field a lot more aggressively” when it came to government funding, modeled on the response of the mining industry to the MRRT, reported TheConversation on July 25.

He argued that capped funding requirements were enforcing a culture of “sameness” and stifling diversity in education, hampering the ability of Australian universities to compete for the international student market.

Hilmer’s address took it for granted that “a significant increase in government funding is unlikely” – and so did a report released by accounting firm Ernst and Young in October, “University of the future”, which recieved national coverage.

The report argued that major changes in the education sector are inevitable due to the “contestability of markets and funding” based on a declining level of public investment, as well as the impact digital technologies and the “democratization of knowledge” are having.

In a response, the NTEU national president Jeannie Rea stated that the government had failed to increase public investment.

However, Rea argued that the choice before the government was between the current system of 38 public institutions or a "handful of elite research intensive universities concentrated in the capital cities."

Greens higher education spokesperson Lee Rhiannon, on the other hand, took up the source of the current crisis in tertiary education - decades of "cuts to the bones", with more than $1.3 billion in funding slashed by the Gillard Labor government since the start of 2011.

"'Market contestability' and 'competition' are buzz words designed to paint increased funding cuts to public universities as inevitable and the private sector as the saviour of universities.", said Rhiannon in a statement.

For students, it's quite clear that we need to expand, not maintain or cut, our public investment in tertiary education. Classroom sizes continue to balloon, and areas of study are more and more moulded to corporate priorities. The "democratisation of knowledge" is being used by neoliberal managements to reduce staff hours and face-to-face contact time.

The wave of restructuring cuts which has taken place in 2012 has been driven by the federal government's shift to a demand-driven system which pits universities against each other for students - with the Gillard government uncapping places to encourage universities to over-enroll. University managements are shedding jobs and courses to adapt to the future of market-driven league table-based funding for higher education - yet the reccomendation from Hilmer or Ernst and Young is more of the same.

The current round of cuts are far from over, with the University of Western Sydney (UWS) announcing that over 50 academic jobs and several subjects, including the entire Economics degree, will be cut in 2013.

Students from across the six campuses of UWS launched a campaign and rallied in response on November 21, despite the cuts being announced during the middle of exam period - clearly an attempt to limit the ability of students to organise major responses to condemn the management in the way that they have at other universities throughout 2012.

But so long as student struggles to defend and expand our education remain swept up into student election campaigns, disconnected and unable to link up with campaigns against neoliberalism in other areas of society, the well-organised campaign by the neoliberal ideologues will continue to hold the upper hand.

Students from across Australia gathered at the ANU in Canberra in September for the EduFactory conference to discuss the wave of attacks coming down. The second EduFactory! conference is being held at the University of Sydney over the ANZAC day long weekend 2013, to discuss national education policies and to organise campaigns for the year. Anyone interested in standing up for free, well-resourced public education should attend and get involved in the struggle.