The invisible factory of the Algerian revolution…

In researching the biography of Michel Raptis, known as Pablo in the Trotskyist Fourth International, I came across Dimitris Livieratos’ account of the arms factory Pablo ‘authored’ in Morocco during a grim phase of the Algerian War when the Algerians were starved of arms. For a man who professed Tolstoyan-Christian attitudes towards violence that was quite a step politically. That’s another story. Then there were all the organisational difficulties and dangers – this was a time when the French version of the CIA were busy killing collaborators with the Algerians. Livieratos’ little book gives easily the best account of this relatively unknown chapter in the Algerian revolution. in its way it is a minor classic. Here are some notes on the book…

Dimitris Livieratos, a Greek comrade of Pablo’s, served as the chief organiser on the spot in Morocco and shuttled between Casablanca and London for his meetings with Pablo – and naturally Hellie [Pablo’s indomitable and outspoken wife] who was always  present. He has given us a frank and episodic account of the whole experience of setting up the factory producing submachine guns.[1]. It was originally written in the mid-1960s on the basis of notes he’d made in 1961 but not published until 2001. The original was in Greek and it wasn’t until 2012 that a French version appeared.  

For Livieratos the honour of the European Left in relation to the Algerian War was saved by the Christian Leftists around the magazine Temoignages Chretiens, a few intellectuals like Francois Jeanson and the Trotskyist PCI. These few men and women offered their support to what was an unambiguously just cause. For the Trotskyists the key man was Pablo, as Livieratos acknowledges:

The Greek Michel Raptis (Pablo) who made the decisive link with the independence movement was then head of the, Fourth International. The issue of our support soon went beyond the political and theoretical level and the question was posed of the extent of our practical support. There were some hesitations on this subject. But the majority finally pledged their support – to the ‘ultimate consequence’.[2]

The ultimate consequence was of course to be shot or blown up by the operational arm of the French secret service, La Main Rouge, who by then had either killed or scared off arms suppliers to the Algerians. 

Accepting the risks, Livieratos was a good soldier. Although he could get impatient with Pablo – he sometimes thought he was too careful – he never questioned his leadership. He assumed responsibility for the management of the 30 or so internationals that Pablo and Sal Santen recruited and sent to work in the submachine gun factory. In addition, the Algerians liked and trusted him and informally incorporated him into the overall management of their other arms factories in Morocco – these were making grenades and mortars.

Some of the Algerians became his comrades. In fact, the most affectionate portraits in the book are of Algerians, not his fellow internationalists. The two he was closest to were Ibrahim and Mourad (Livieratos uses only their first names). Ibrahim is an old Algerian communist who insisted on calling everyone ‘comrade’ when the universal term of address was the Muslim ‘brother’. He had broken first with the French Communist party (PCF) and then the Algerian Communist party (PCA) over their refusal to back the armed struggle for independence. The PCA’s later conversion did at least offer him some consolation. As for Mourad, he occupied the other end of the political spectrum inside the FLN as a nationalist. Mourad was hostile to socialism and didn’t believe an independent Algeria would be ready for democracy. Something of a loner and dissident who had been downgraded but was now rising again in the ranks, Mourad told Livieratos that he didn’t intend to live in Algeria after independence. As it was, he was no sooner accepted back into the leadership than he died in an accident before freedom was attained. 

To establish the factory producing what was a Belgian copy of the French pistolet mitrailleur MAT 49 was a complex and extraordinary task – especially doing it quickly and secretly. It was something which the GPRA/FLN initially thought beyond their capabilities. It meant sourcing the machines and materials in Europe, shipping them to Morocco, transporting them to a secret location (a former jam factory in an orange orchard as it turned out), and finally recruiting a skilled workforce. All this had to be done without details fatally leaking to the French secret police. In Morocco itself, French spies and informers were numerous, so once the factory was set up, the workers would be virtual industrial prisoners granted only very limited leave. The first version of the factory built in 1959 had to be abandoned and the machinery moved overnight when a high functionary in the FLN defected to the French in April 1960.  

Understandably once the factory began operations, morale was a problem for the ‘entombed’ workers, both Algerian and international. As the whole operation was secret at the time and likely to remain so for some time afterwards, there was little or no glory as compensation. The days were long and boredom was a constant problem. Many of the workers involved – and not just the Algerians – wanted to serve the revolution as armed insurgents. Being unacknowledged factory workers, slaving 10 hours a day in a former marmalade factory in the backblocks of Morocco, was not the heroic role they thought they were signing up for.      

Livieratos breaks down the 300 Algerians working in the arms factories into two distinct groups – those who had tasted life outside Algeria and those who came direct from the villages of the plains and mountains of that country. In the first group were the ‘ancients’, those who had worked in the already existing factories for more than a year and were conditioned to the long hours and lack of freedom. These veterans were supplemented by the ‘newly arrived’ workers from Paris, Lille, Marseilles or the French prison system, who expected to be fighting for the Revolution but found themselves imprisoned in the humdrum life of the factory, yet who were nevertheless usually good-humoured. These workers spoke French as well as Arabic, were generally left-wing and had shed their religion. The other half were peasants from the villages, displaced by the war, resigned, patient and religiously observant. The conflicts between the newly arrived proletarians from France and the peasant brothers was the most marked division – ‘while the French are killing us, they pray’, one of the Franco-Algerians observed of the men from the djebells. The Algerians workers were incidentally almost all young, between 18 and 22. 

The international volunteers were not all members of the Fourth International. Livieratos is scornful of the ‘excuses’ many of the leaders and the members of the European sections made for not sending volunteers. For him it was a symptom of the ingrained eurocentrist, talking shops, that much of the International had become. Because of this abstemious support, Pablo and Santen were thrown back on depending on non-member volunteers, most of whom were impatient with any discussion of high-blown politics but supported the cause of Algerian freedom. Among such volunteers was the Dutchman and veteran of the Dutch World War II resistance, Albert Oeldrich, who we will meet later in a worse light. He was a highly skilled designer and engraver and was deeply involved in setting up the factory and sourcing equipment. Livieratos calls him ‘the old adventurer’. At one stage Pablo is forced to intervene to read Albert the riot act, to stop him going freelance and making side arrangements with ‘Victor’, the boss of the Algerian operations in Morocco, without going through Pablo or Santen. It was a trait that would soon or later bring down Pablo and Santen. 

By Livieratos’s account these thirty internationals came from nearly a dozen countries, mostly skilled men necessary to the setting up and maintenance of the factory. We learn something of the lives and character of only a handful, and in another sign of Livieratos’s internationalism, it is the two Jamaicans who get the fullest treatment. Altogether the internationalists were not a completely happy band of comrades, as some develop doubts about the International’s line of unconditional support for the Algerians. One of the Englishmen in particular, has no sooner arrived than he wants to leave. Livieratos has to argue long and hard to secure the agreement of the Algerians for this ‘desertion’. But the main conflict among these international proletarians is around the model of management for the factory. Workers self-management or Lenin’s favoured one-man management. The Argentinians insist on collective, democratic management but the Europeans – the Dutch chief among them – are more favourable to traditional, top-down direction. In the end a compromise is agreed: regular general meetings, but day-to-day management to be devolved to a triumvirate of the three most skilled men. 

For the Algerians decision-making appears to have been by general assembly but the democracy was more consultative than determinative. Brothers could raise whatever issue they liked and say whatever they liked, but any prior factional organising or caucusing was absolutely forbidden. Despite all the toing and froing and arguing, it was the leaders who made the final decisions, usually based on what they have heard. At times they would put an issue to the vote to better gauge what is acceptable and then accept the result. It appeared to be more participation than autogestion. Nevertheless, their meetings are frequent and long – up to 12 or 14 hours – and frequently stormy. The internationals attend these meetings but only speak when invited. The meetings are in Arabic with a smattering of French. Livieratos learns some basic Arabic and so is able to get the gist of the arguments. 

At the factory, life was not all grim and argumentative. An esprit de corps develops. True at all of the factories the workers are shut in and the perimeters patrolled by frequently officious Algerians soldiers, but at Souk al Abra there is a a swimming pool and the more worldly and travelled Algerians teach the boys from the interior how to swim. There is also much fraternisation, reading and talking:

Those who weren’t required at their posts sat around on their blankets under the trees… We talked of all or nothing, of Brigitte Bardot or dialectical materialism. Day after day we swapped stories from all corners of the globe.
Weeks, dates, time itself, lost their importance.[3]  

The factory operates until the ceasefire in March 1962, producing more than 5,000 submachine guns. In July 1963 Livieratos is invited back to Algeria as an official guest for the first anniversary celebrations of independence. In the march-past on the 1st of July in Algiers, seated on the podium for special guests, he is excited to see a battalion of soldiers pass by brandishing their PMs aloft. His internationalist labour has not been in vain although it does appear that by 1961 the FLN’s arms drought had been solved by huge shipments from China and Eastern Europe. There was nothing the French navy and La Main Rouge could do about that.

No sooner had he finished setting the factory on foot than the FLN approached Pablo for help with another project. Ironically it was to be an operational failure but very public, very visible – and a signal political success. 

[1] L’usine invisible de la revolution algerienne, memoires d’un trotskiste grec (Editions Asini, Athens, 2012)

[2] L’usine invisible p.27

[3] L’usine invisible, p.131

Jack Mundey 1929-2020: a comrade for our times

Jack Mundey at the 2013 launch of the Greens election campaign in NSW: on stage left to right, the author, Senator Lee Rhiannon, Australian Greens parliamentary leader Senator Christine Milne and senate candidate Cate Faehrmann.

Because of Jack Mundey the Sixties were different in Australia. The United States had Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Mario Savio, Angela Davis, Noam Chomsky et al; France had red-haired anarcho-communist Daniel Cohn-Bendit; Germany Rudi Dutschke; Britain Tariq Ali and John Lennon. They were all activist intellectuals or students. That was typical of that moment in history. Only Australia had a figurehead who was a working-class hero. That was Jack Mundey, legendary leader of the builder’s labourers union, who died Sunday night aged 90.

Jack (born John Bernard) Mundey combined in himself all the leitmotifs of the Sixties. He was antiwar. He was anti-racist. He practised civil disobedience. He was a champion of the environment. He was a supporter of women’s and gay liberation. He advocated participatory democracy – it was called self-management then – everywhere. He introduced it and practised it in his union. He defended the idea of socialism with a human face and condemned the Russian-led invasion that snuffed out the experiment in a democratic socialism in Czechoslovakia in 1968. 

And yes, he wore his hair long. He might have preferred a beer to a toke, but he had no problems with dope smoking. He was as much at home with libertarian bohemians (of which Sydney in the 1960s had more than its fair share) as with building workers.

Jack’s origins were radical petit bourgeois – his father was a small dairy farmer and lapsed Catholic – but he hailed from a classically Australian working class redoubt. He was from North Queensland, once known as the ‘Red North’, the only part of the country to ever elect a Communist Party MP – Fred Paterson back in the 1940s. He came to Sydney in the 1950s to play rugby league football for a club in the proletarian western suburbs, Parramatta, which he did for three seasons. He did that on Saturdays; during the week he worked as a builders labourer. He experienced his share of the vicissitudes of life early on; his first wife Stephanie died of a brain haemorrhage at age 22.

Naturally, for those days, Jack was a member of his union, the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF). It had become a sad excuse for a union but Jack was soon caught up in a reform drive which by the early 1960s had democratised a newly militant BLF. By 1970 he was its undisputed leader. 

Along the way Jack had got communism (and met his life-long partner Judy Rimmer). It was a time when Australian communism was in turmoil, splitting three ways: pro-Chinese, pro-Moscow and independent. Jack joined the third tendency. He was always an activist, making his appearance as a public militant when he was arrested in one of the first anti-Vietnam War sit-down protests in 1965. (One of his fellow arrestees was Bill Brown, the father of future Greens senator Lee Rhiannon.)

A revolutionary in the ’hood

He became famous, of course, because of the Green Bans. This was the name given to the practice of the BLF in banning the employment of any builder’s labourers on contentious development projects. As almost all builder’s labourers were union members, a Green Ban would stop any development or demolition in its tracks. These Green Bans stopped the destruction of swathes of the Rocks and Woolloomooloo, the alienation of parts of Centennial Park and high-rise development on Sydney harbourside land.  

It began in the most unlikely place, in refined haute bourgeois Hunters Hill, when in 1970 a bunch of female resident activists asked Jack and the BLF to help save Kelly’s Bush, an area of bushland on the harbour foreshore slated for an apartment development.  What is often forgotten or overlooked in the celebration of the Green Ban movement is that it was a response to an upsurge of local community movements against over-development in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Sydney. Green Bans were typically imposed only after citizens in a neighbourhood called for them.

Green Bans came to Sydney University in 1973 during the student-staff strike in the Arts faculty over the attempt to prevent a course in marxism and feminism in the Philosophy Department. The threatened Green Ban acted more as a boost to morale rather than a blow against the university administration which was not then the mega-developer it was to become a generation later.

The Greens Bans left their historic mark in another way too. Petra Kelly, who was to become the ‘founding mother’, so to speak, of the world’s first Green Party in Germany, visited Australia in 1977 and met Jack Mundey and learned of his revolutionary ecological unionism. Back in Germany, Petra insisted on the name ‘Green’ – in conscious tribute to the Green Bans – for the party ex-Sixties radicals formed in 1980. 

The Sixties came to an end in Australia with the fall of the Whitlam government in 1975. Coincidentally the Maoist federal leadership of the BLF sacked the Mundey-ite leadership of the BLF in New South Wales. As in the case of the Whitlam coup, there were protests but the mood for reform had soured and the federal intervention won out. 

Jack was far from finished and was elected to the Sydney City Council in 1984 as part of a radical push.  Throughout the 1980s Jack searched for ways to renew and expand the Communist Party but it carried too much baggage to ever be a realistic option. 

By then Jack had been elected president of the Communist Party, but it was a ‘hospital pass’ as they say in rugby league, as the party was in terminal decline. When the Party disbanded in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was more than natural that Jack and Judy, after an initial hesitation, joined the Greens. After all, its politics were theirs. The four founding principles of the Greens – ecological sustainability, participatory democracy, social justice and peace and non-violence – summed up Jack Mundey’s basic credo. 

The man of the Sixties had found his natural home. Right to the end he continued to support citizens in campaigns against the wrong kind of growth, whether it was coal mines, fracking, heritage demolitions or the expropriation of public land for upscale apartments. He’s gone, but his example remains. La lutte continue, as they say. 

May 11, 2020

This appeared in honi soit, the student newspaper at Sydney University,

Shouldn’t the Greens abolish themselves for the sake of the climate?

That was the big provocative question from Guardian columnist Greg Jericho on Sunday. My main complaint with the Jericho piece is that it is ahistorical. He asks the Greens to question their choice of a separate existence rather than choosing to be part of the Labor party, reinforcing its left wing. Wouldn’t that have been more effective in combating climate change, he asks.

What he doesn’t seem to appreciate is that this choice was denied to many Greens members. They were excluded – directly or indirectly – from the Labor ranks by Labor’s pursuit of damming the Franklin, mining and exporting uranium and supporting deleterious urban over-developments. In some cases, the left-wing of Labor played an active role in the exclusions – that was the case for those who founded the first registered Greens party, the Greens NSW.

The Greens in Sydney take to the streets in 1984

As for failure to achieve anything outside Labor’s ranks, the Franklin runs free, Kelly’s Bush remains bush and there are no apartment blocks on the iconic Callan Park in inner-Sydney – because of the efforts of Greens. There are other achievements too that the Greens can lay legitimate claim to be central to.

True, in none of those cases were the campaigning efforts of the Greens outside the Labor party enough in and of themselves. Necessary but not sufficient. Yet it is extremely doubtful that buried in the Labor party we could have achieved these things. In Australia, the Labor party exercises a draconian discipline over its members and the party’s left-wing, which might carve out some freedom for members, is timid and conformist. Sadly, even the likes of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, let alone Jeremy Corbyn, are inconceivable in the Australian Labor Party.

Nevertheless, it is in connection with climate change that Jericho’s argument has some validity. No one can seriously believe that the Greens alone can radically mitigate Australia’s contribution to disastrous climate change. It is why we Greens support the wider extra-parliamentary and community-based movements, whether against the Adani mine or the coal mine expansion at Bulga in the Hunter Valley or fracking in NSW or the Northern Territory. However, in all such cases it will take more than Greens to stop and wind-back thermal coal and gas extraction.

And beyond this, a Greens-Labor-community movement – and not in that order – is going to be necessary to transform our socio-economic system. Stopping fossil fuels is only the first step in halting the unfolding ecological disaster of global warming, species extinction and resource exhaustion.

The suite of policies that may be equal to this challenge – as well as reversing worsening social inequalities – is being developed under the rubric of the Green New Deal. The actual content and priorities are still being worked out but it is something that at least tentatively both Labor movement and some Greens people are talking about. (Former advisors to Green parliamentary leader advising Labor to go right will not help.)

If it is to be more than greenwash for the disastrous status quo, if it is going to be transitional and transformational, the Green New Deal is going to require determined and irresistible mass support. That can only conceivable in a movement that unites Labor and the Greens – and goes way, way beyond them.

That is something that Greg Jericho and the more radical Greens can agree on. As for Labor (and even some Greens), one can only hope.

The elections and the Green New Deal

It is by now a generally accepted explanation that an ageing electorate living in a neoliberal, individualistic society with a stagnant economy, would – and did – give the edge to centre-right and right-wing parties at the May 18 elections in Australia*.

Where there was a degree of prosperity and a younger demographic – basically within 10-15kms from the centre of capital cities – the centre left triumphed, even enjoying a significant swing, but it was not enough to outweigh the swing to the right in the regions and outer suburbs.

The biggest swing to the right – and it was to the racist One Nation rather than to the governing Liberal National Party – was in the north Queensland seat of Dawson where unemployment is as high as 10 per cent. It also happens to be the seat containing the projected Adani coal mine which is the chief target of the climate action movement in Australia. The voters in Dawson opted for the prospect of mining jobs (no matter how unlikely and how few) rather than a curb on coal.

The Dawson experience was at the centre of one of the best analyses of the election result – by Greg Jericho on the Guardian Australia website. (The other was by the Greens councillor on Brisbane Council, Jonathan Sri.) Jericho’s inescapable conclusion was that the Greens and Labor need to get down to elaborating a Green New Deal for Australia if they are to win back straying ‘old’ working class voters.

AZahalka 1

Image Anne Zahalka

Fortunately, the momentum is already building for that. A number of union officials have spoken out for it. This has also been echoed by NSW Labor Right MP Tony Burke. The Greens NSW MP David Shoebridge has been championing the key elements of a Green New Deal for some time and has lately explicitly adopted the term.

During the NSW State election campaign in March, Shoebridge launched a Just Transitions plan. The key elements were nominating future regional hubs for the generation and transmission of renewables and a fund based on a percentage of coal royalties to pay for the transition to renewables . These proposals, strangely forgotten during the federal campaign by the Australian Greens, could be adopted as a key part of a Green New Deal.

Some of the criticism of the Australian Greens election campaign coming from the left within the party has been along the lines of too much emphasis on climate change and not enough on a radical social justice platform (see for instance the excellent reflections by Councillor Sri). The more relevant point is to make the link from climate change to a more transformative economic policy. Only by curbing the power of corporations, boosting public investment and ownership, and instituting community-worker management, can we make the transition to a decarbonised economy and society in the short time we have available. All those policy elements – including nationalisation – are already part of the Australian Greens platform but they were ignored by the leadership during the election campaign.

While much of what would constitute a decent Green New Deal is already in the Australian Greens platform, similar – or even better – ideas are being advocated elsewhere. This should enable the campaign for a Green New Deal to be as broad as possible while also allowing room for necessary debate about the more transformative or controversial elements.

For greens in particular, a Green New Deal would revolve around the five Ds: decolonisation, democratisation, decarbonisation, de-commodification and demilitarisation. There is stuff in that list that some potential allies (and Greens) will find challenging.

Arguably there have been worse electoral defeats in Australia than on May 18. In 1966, for instance, the key issue was Australia’s continued involvement in the war on Vietnam. A victory for Labor then, campaigning on a promise of the immediate withdrawal of Australian troops, could have led to a more rapid end to that war and a happier future for the Vietnamese people. Instead Labor was smashed, its primary vote sinking to 39 per cent. At least on Saturday May 18 the centre left primary vote was at 43-44 per cent. In 1966 Labor and the left quickly picked themselves up off the canvass. There was no alternative. It appears we will be doing the same again now. This time from a better position.



The Egyptian Revolution 1919 – and the role of the Australian Light Horse brigades

STOP PRESS: A longer and fully referenced version of this paper, concentrating on the ‘pacification’ efforts of the Australian Light Horse regiments, has now been published by Honest History.

One hundred years ago the British Empire found itself in mortal crisis. It was threatened by independence uprisings in three key territories: Ireland, India and Egypt. In Egypt the fabled Australian Light Horse men were to ride to its rescue.

Ireland was its oldest colony, India the jewel in the crown of the Empire, but Egypt – location of the Suez Canal – was the most strategic for the Empire’s survival. And it was in Egypt that the most popular of the national uprisings occurred.

The Egyptian revolution came as a bolt out of the blue for the British – as the Foreign Office later admitted – but it was in retrospect a predictable storm.

The Egyptians had made huge sacrifices for the British cause during the war. An estimated million Egyptians had been dragged into service in the Egyptian Labour Corps and the Egyptian Camel Corps. Their job was to build the railway across the Sinai and into Palestine to supply the reinforcements, food, weapons and ordnance to the British Empire troops fighting the Ottoman Turks for control of the Middle East. While not in the frontline, these labourers suffered hundreds of deaths especially in the harsh winters of 1917 and 1918.

At home their families went hungry as the crops were requisitioned for feeding the army and the people of Britain. In 1918, for the first time in a quarter of a century, deaths outnumbered births in Egypt, a statistic attributable to malnutrition.

While the British relied on local collaborators to carry out much of the enforcement in this extractive economy, the British were clearly issuing the orders.

As Thomas Russell Pasha, the British police chief in Cairo, was later to observe, “by the beginning of 1919 the fellahin and working classes were seething with indignation against the British Authorities. It only needed a sudden breeze to bring the smouldering embers to the blaze.”

The British chose to throw petrol on the embers. On 8 March 1919 they arrested Saad Zaghlul, the Gandhi of the Egyptian nationalist movement, and deported him and his closest comrades to Malta.

Since the end of the war in November 1918 Zaghlul had been pressing – to no avail – the British to allow a delegation of Egyptians to attend the Versailles Peace Conference. The nationalists wanted to go to Versailles to claim the right of national self-determination – the cause the Allies had claimed to be fighting the war for.

Zaghlul’s arrest led immediately to strikes and demonstrations in Cairo and other cities. Initially this involved students and lawyers but it soon spread to train and tram drivers, to port workers and local civil servants, paralysing the country’s economy and administration.

By the end of the second week of March it had spread to the countryside. Everywhere villagers rose, tore up the railway track (to paralyse any further extractions of food and men), and cut telegraph lines. In many towns the people set up ‘soviets’ or makeshift revolutionary local governments.

Poor peasants and landless labourers ransacked the larger estates to redistribute food, animals and tools. The jacqueriedid not spare the movement’s leaders. For instance, the local peasantry invaded the palace and shared out the contents of the granary of the family of Mohammad Mahmoud Pasha, one of Zaghlul’s closest collaborators, who had also been arrested and deported to Malta.

There was much more that was admirable in this national insurgency. Copts and Muslims cooperated throughout the Egyptian Revolution of 1919. In addition, for the first time Egyptian women demonstrated and marched in public. It started with upper-class women – Russell (the police chief in Cairo) sneered that their marches were organised by telephone and the women arrived in chauffeured cars. But the example soon spread to women from the peasantry and working class. For those familiar with the Cairene trilogy of Naguib Mahfouz, the revolutionary import of this will be evident.

The uprising was also remarkably pacific. Less than a handful of British civilians and only a few dozen British Empire soldiers died.

The Egyptians, naturally, paid a heavier price. Estimates of the Egyptian dead in the March days vary from 800 to 3,000. This toll – even at its lower estimate – was at least twice as high as the toll in the suppression of the Indian unrest – despite India having a population 15 times larger. Some non-British foreigners were also targeted.

This relatively savage repression was no accident. The British authorities opted for maximum force because their position was so weak and exposed. The bulk of their Middle East forces had been repatriated home. The Egyptian army and police were judged to be unreliable. The British even contemplated using Turkish prisoners of war.

What they did have on hand were the bulk of the Australian Light Horse brigades that spearheaded the defeat of the Turks in the Middle East. The dispatch home of these troops had been delayed as punishment for the massacre at war’s end of unarmed men at the village of Surafend in what is modern day Lebanon. The mass killing had been in reprisal for the murder of a New Zealand trooper in a robbery that went wrong.

On March 16 these troops were deployed in the heavily populated Nile Delta with orders to use ‘amply sufficient’ force to put down the rebellion. Their orders were to shoot on sight anyone interfering with rail and telegraph lines and to burn villages adjacent to places where lines had been cut.

The officers and troops were told that the natives did not respect timidity: “hesitation and feeble action will be useless and dangerous”, read the order from the British commanding officer, General Bulfin. For his part, Brigadier General Lachlan Wilson, the commander of the main Australian column, later wrote that it was decided to imitate the methods of the ‘hellish Hun’. He went on to relate how in one incident a force of 15 Australians killed 80 rioting ‘Gyppos’ in just one minute. He then added: “The lesson had been severe but there was no more rioting”.

Sadly this was not true. The sparse records held at the Australian War Memorial record the deaths of hundreds. It was machine guns against Egyptians armed with sticks and stones.

So zealous were the Australians in carrying out their orders that the British officers in Cairo had to issue restraining orders by the end of March.

Until they were withdrawn in June, the Australian troopers continued to kill locals in occasional skirmishes but by mid-April the revolution was turned down. The nationalist leaders, constitutionalists and rich men, had soon grown alarmed at the people’s turn to force and incipient social revolution. Along with the clerics of both religions, they instructed their followers to desist from violent methods. In Cairo and other centres they even formed their own police to restrain their followers.

The pacification in the Delta continued regardless. Hundreds of ‘agitators’ were arrested, many imprisoned and many more sentenced by Australian summary military courts to floggings. In some cases the lash proved fatal.

It is difficult to believe at this remove of a century, that Australian troops would arrest and flog the citizens of another country for campaigning for their country’s freedom. But the racism of the Australian troops, officers and men, was indisputable. Optimistic Egyptian nationalists had leafleted the Australian troopers calling on them to support their Egyptian brothers. The troops just laughed at these ‘effusions’– “even the most rabid Socialist among the men refused to admit brotherhood with the Gippos”, according to General Wilson.

Wilson himself was under no illusions about what the Australian troopers were doing. “We had the whole of the native population against us,” he admitted.

Despite the vicious repression, the uprising did achieve its immediate objective. On April 9 the British decided to release Zaghlul and allow him to lead an Egyptian delegation to Versailles. It was a shrewd move. The British had already secured reassurances from the US President Wilson that the Americans did not envisage the right to national self-determination being extended to coloured folks.

When the Egyptians realised how fruitless their appearance at the peace conference was, they resumed their campaign but focused on the cities and towns. Employing selective assassination of actual or would be collaborators, boycotts and strikes, they did achieve home rule in 1922 (control of the Suez Canal and the armed forces was reserved to the Britsh).

This limited independence was the result of the British authorities in Cairo convincing the government in London that Egypt was on the verge of an even larger and more threatening national uprising if major concessions were not made.

Zaghlul’s Wafd (or Delegation) party won the subsequent elections in a landslide and he became the first elected prime minister. But it was to be another generation – and the rise of another Zaghlul (he died in 1927) –  before Egypt was to achieve in full the hopes of the rising of March 1919. But arguably that revolution had carried them further than either the Irish or Indian rebellions of the post-war period.


A fully referenced/footnoted version of this paper – detailing the machine-gunning of Egyptians, the floggings inflicted and the villages burnt – will be published on the Honest History website later this month.








Google AOC ….


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Forget the conspiracy theories, there are global political trends behind the friction inside the Greens NSW 

Greens with triangles

What is happening in the Greens NSW? That’s the worried question I often encounter. The short answer is: google Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. But more of that in a minute. A recent and misleading answer advanced by people like ex-Greens member Jeremy Buckingham is that Reds-have taken over, in some kind of carefully organised infiltration operation. Taken over in their hundreds, Buckingham claimed on the ABC, although he didn’t offer a shred of evidence. Naturally some corporate media have echoed this colourful fantasy.

What this claim fails to examine are the changes in political thinking taking place not just inside the Greens, but playing out across Australia and, indeed, across the globe

Left-of-centre politics in the main Anglophone countries in the past few years have been marked by two radicalisation waves.

The first was the Sanders/Corbyn one which rehabilitated a critical attitude towards capitalism and sympathy for ‘democratic socialism’ as the alternative. It’s a scarcely surprising development, given obscene levels of inequality, unethical corporate behaviour (especially in the finance sector) and the accelerating degradation of our living environment, this last a disastrous state of affairs intimately connected to those first two. Encouragingly, many people are beginning to perceive that connection and want to see some action.

The Sanders/Corbyn effect was bound to play out in Australia in the Greens because the Labor party lacks anyone remotely able to play the Sanders or Corbyn role of sheeting home our social and environmental problems to corporations and their commitment to endless growth and profits above all other considerations.

The second advance was the global #MeToo movement, reacting against male abuse of power in employment, politics and the legal system. This movement has found a natural support in the Greens NSW with its strong feminist tradition. Historically every Greens senator from New South Wales has been a woman and more than half of its state MPs have been women.

This is where Alexandria Ocasio Cortez comes in. AOC, as she is known on the internet and social media, is emblematic of these global political changes. Just 29 years old, AOC was elected to Congress in November for a New York district as an out and proud democratic socialist and feminist. For better or for worse, AOC is the political heroine of the moment.

How this plays out in Greens NSW

Back to New South Wales. In last year’s preselection for top spot on the Greens ticket for the Upper House, Jeremy Buckingham was caught in the headlights of these two political advances.

David Shoebridge’s politics were outlined in this manifesto late in 2017.

His main opponent, David Shoebridge stood very clearly on an eco-Corbyn platform. His campaign slogan was an acknowledged rip-off from British Labour’s election slogan: For the many not the few, for the planet not for profit.

Shoebridge argued that the curbing of the power of corporations and developers, and more democratic rights for citizens, were essential if we wanted to protect our environment. Similarly, he advocated more progressive taxation of the rich and limits on executive pay, as well as a healthy public sector, as the way to more social equality. This radical social advocacy distinguished him very markedly from the more conservative Buckingham and he won easily.

While the charge of sexual harassment arose after the preselection voting, halfway through the voting social media lit up with a photo of Buckingham indulging in a seemingly lewd gesture at a Greens function. He already had a record of aggressive behaviour towards other Greens members and this scarcely helped his cause.

After the preselection which placed Buckingham in the third (and probably unwinnable) spot on the ticket, the charge of sexual harassment surfaced. A key element in the #MeToo movement is the default position of believing the survivors of assault. So it was for many Greens members in this case and they began the push to remove him from the ticket entirely.

Some perceived and ill-advised responses of Buckingham and his advisors to the charge and subsequent enquiry only widened the opposition to his presence on the ticket. Even the federal Party Room pressed him to withdraw from the ticket.

Buckingham has now split from the Greens and some of his more conservative fellow MPs are contemplating joining him. While sympathetic to them, Bob Brown has counselled them against it as a doomed venture.

While enjoying an unrivalled status as an environmental campaigner, there is plenty of evidence that both the socialist revival and the #MeToo movement have passed Bob by too. They were never likely to influence him as Brown has been hostile since the founding years to the Greens in NSW because of their more radical policy prescriptions. For example, Brown opposed their push for a harm minimisation drug policy and for a (mild) wealth tax. The NSW emphasis on decentralisation and power being with members did not always sit well with him either. Members of Brown’s Tasmanian Greens, for example, did not get a direct vote in candidate selection until 2014, in contrast Greens in NSW have had that right since 1984.

In no way do I want to overplay the impact of the radicalising elements in the Greens NSW but there can be little doubt that most members see global warming and problems like critical water shortages as the result of the activities of corporations and a system based on infinite growth on a planet with finite resources. As for the alternative or alternatives to capitalism, much like for AOC, that is a conversation Greens are just beginning to have.

One thing the newly or freshly radicalised Greens do agree on is the need for public enterprise and regulation of corporations if we  to counter and halt global warming. It is abundantly clear that the operation of markets and private corporations – business as usual – will not meet the needs of a transition to a renewables-based economy. Certainly not in the time span we must meet. 

In addition, there are a host of immediate policies that keep the Greens together and make them an essential alternative in our political scene. These are policies no other parliamentary party is offering: opposition to coal mines and gas fields, support for a rapid (and just) transition to renewables, treaty or treaties with Australia’s First Peoples, abolishing offshore detention, an increase in genuine aid to developing countries, more progressive taxation, more power to citizens including the right to strike, drug legalisation, an expanded public sector encompassing free education from pre-school to TAFE and university, free public transport and priority investment in public and community housing projects.

Whatever the growing strains happen to be for the Greens, the ecological dangers such as extreme heat, fire and floods, and the escalating unfairness most citizens now face mean the Greens – in parliament and out in our communities – will remain indispensable if we are to escape our worst dangers. There can be little argument with that. As proof, membership in the Greens NSW has resumed its upward trajectory after last year’s dip. Not all of them are fans of Sanders, Corbyn and AOC, but many of them are.

The just formed Greens at a Sydney anti-nuclear demo in 1984 – note the late, great Nick Origlass on the extreme left of photo.

Hall Greenland was among the founders of the Greens in Australia and is deputy convenor of the Greens NSW. 

Greens clouds, silver lining?

Another world

It takes some Orwellian chutzpah to label the Greens NSW anti-democratic. That hasn’t stopped anti-socialist Greens MPs Jeremy Buckingham, Cate Faehrmann and Justin Field from doing just that. They have made this fantastic allegation precisely because a recent internal election – in which two-thirds of members participated – resulted in a stunning defeat for candidates in their faction, including Jeremy himself. They are now attempting to recoup their losses. More of that in a moment.

Talking of that election – it was for the top positions on the Greens upper house ticket for the March state elections – it is worth mentioning that the Greens are the only parliamentary party in this country in which all its candidates are directly elected by the members. In fact, you only have to be a member for three months before you can vote or even stand for election as a candidate. So much for being anti-democratic.

Buckingham, who is an Upper House MP in NSW, has just very loudly and publicly left the Greens denouncing the party as ‘rotten’, ‘corrupt’, ‘anti-capitalist’, ‘Marxist’ and ‘controlled by the extreme Left’. None of this is true [I’m tempted to add unfortunately], even if there are plenty of members who own up to being eco-socialists or steady-state economy supporters or strong critics of the intrinsic growth fetish of capitalism. All of what you would expect in a decent Greens party.

In fact, in his final days Buckingham found himself offside even with the centrist national leadership of the Greens who openly wanted him gone.

In his last months in the Greens, Buckingham was accused of sexual harassment by a former staffer. An independent investigation did not find it proven although it upheld the reputation of the complainant. Buckingham and his supporters keep returning to this investigation and its outcome when it is his aggressive behaviour during and after the investigation that has deprived him of support.

If Jeremy Buckingham has gone, his allies among the Upper House Greens MPs, principally Cate Faehrmann and Justin Field, remain. After Buckingam’s hysterical exit and declaration that he would run against the Greens, Faehrmann posted her best wishes for his future projects.

Earlier (on December 12) Faehrmann and Field had issued a 5-day ultimatum to the party. They too charged the party with being anti-democratic and demanded the banning and expulsion of members of the avowedly anti-capitalist Left Renewal tendency.

Left Renewal is a small group of younger Greens, numbering no more than 30 or 40, whose radicalism is similar to the Democratic Socialists of America in the US Democrats or Momentum in the British Labour Party. (Incidentally, the claim that Left Renwal is led by older Greens, Lee Rhiannon and David Shoebridge, is laughable – Left Renewal was formed partly because of the belief that the old lefties in the party had grown too slack and accommodating. The name – renewal – explains it all.)

In their ultimatum Faehrmann and Field claimed to be champions of natural justice and procedural fairness. How they squared this with the McCarthyite demand for the immediate banning and expulsion of Left Renewal Greens is impossible to follow. No evidence was presented for Left Renewal’s supposedly disruptive and subversive activities. We say they’re reds, so out they go. In reality any disruption is clearly coming from the other political direction.

The second barrel of the Faehrmann-Field ultimatum was a demand for a recount of the ballot for the Upper House ticket if Buckingham was to go. This is a blatant attempt to cut the losses of their faction.

After a string of four victories for right-supported candidates in internal preselections in the Greens NSW, these forces decisively lost the election that pitted David Shoebridge against Jeremy Buckingham for the top position on the Greens Upper House ticket for the 2019 state election.

Shoebridge’s politics are radical social democratic, combining environmental activism with defence of civil liberties, support for public enterprise (especially in renewables and banking), justice for First Peoples, solidarity with unions, taxing the rich and corporations and the de-commodification of essentials like education and housing. He understands that at the root of our climate danger and growing inequalities are corporations. David is a long-time friend and supporter of Lee Rhiannon, another Corbyn-ish Green.

Shoebridge’s clear-cut victory over his high-profile anti-fracking colleague Jeremy Buckingham for top position on the Greens ticket, was a blow to the more conservative elements in the Greens NSW.

Shoebridge’s preferences, along with the Greens affirmative action provisions, were enough to put Abigail Boyd in the number 2 (or winnable) position on the Greens ticket and relegated Jeremy Buckingham and his comrade Dawn Walker, also a current Greens MP, to the (to be realistic) unwinnable third and fourth positions.

What Faerhmann and Field now want is a recount of the ballot with Buckingham’s votes added to Dawn Walker’s so that she finishes second and is bumped up to the second and winnable position. In that way, the conservative bloc will have salvaged something from their defeat.

Their pre-Christmas ultimatum turned out to be a damp squib. When it expired on December 17 their threat to leave the party was shelved. They are not following Buckingham out of the party – yet. However, these ultimatum-ists have made it clear they will continue to disrupt the party.

So the Greens NSW will now contend with opposition within and without. This sabotage is not an ideal situation with state and federal elections due in the next six months. Not surprisingly some people are reaching for their history books to read up on the Great Labor Party Split of 1955. This resulted in the creation of the so-called Democratic Labor Party (DLP) and an extended period in the electoral wilderness for the Labor Party proper. The DLPers ranted about reds controlling the Labor party and Buckingham is but a small-time, distant echo. Yet, as we know now, the best years for Labor – its inspiring opposition to the Vietnam War and the Whitlam government – were ahead of it.


Lee Rhiannon’s contribution

Remarks to the ‘thank-you-Lee & see you on the streets’ party on Saturday night (there were also contributions from Sylvia Hale, Jim Casey, Kilty O’Brien and David Shoebridge – I am hoping the event was recorded)

Thank you for the honour of inviting me to say a few words about Lee [Rhiannon, former Greens senator from NSW to the national parliament]…

Some years ago a critic of the German Greens concluded they were neoliberals on bikes. Their record as members of coalition governments in Germany certainly warranted the description.

In 2012 the phrase was used during a discussion of the decision taken almost unanimously  at a Australian Greens national conference to abandon the Greens commitment to a wealth tax – a tax incidentally that was only aimed at the very wealthy and only after they were dead. Only the NSW delegates opposed that abandonment of that mild measure for equality. Only one member of the Australian Greens Party Room voted against this surrender to political opportunism – you don’t need to be told who that was.

Some years later the very same delegates walked back – or, if you prefer, back-pedalled –from that abandonment. Not surprisingly. In the intervening period Thomas Piketty and Bernie Sanders had made wealth inequality a global issue and former neoliberals on bikes were now pedalling furiously to catch up. There was, however, no acknowledgment of the former error and the spasm of political opportunism.

It would be nice if such neoliberal thinking were confined to the past. However policy initiatives such as a people’s bank offering cheap mortgage loans to the better off or a publicly-owned electricity retailer, aiming to civilise the market admittedly, but leaving the grid and generation in the hands of private corporations, is scarcely evidence of abandoning neoliberal thinking. Or of responding to the dangerous climate crisis with measures commensurate with the existential challenge we face.

While we are here, one cannot also forget the recent flirtation by the Australian Greens MPs with Gonski 2.0 which privileges the private, non-government schools.

The ending of that flirtation had everything to do with the presence of the senator from Greens NSW.

And that’s the point I want to make. For almost 30 years – longer than almost anyone in this room with the exception of her partner Geoff who was wise enough to recruit her – Lee Rhiannon has been central among those who have ensured that the Greens in Australia did not become part of politics as usual. If the Greens in Australia did not completely become neoliberals on bikes, did not follow the path of conformism of too many Green parties, it was because of her presence and the people she persuaded and inspired to come along with her.

That there is a transformational – or ecosocialist, or dissident  – left in the Greens in this country is her legacy and continuing project.

In her time she has not departed from our four founding principles one iota. Despite having to weather more attacks and sniping from the mainstream media (sadly aided and abetted by elements in the party) than any politician, let alone Greens politician, in Australia, she has remained steadfast. And she has done it with extraordinary grace and calm. Partly this was a matter of her temperament and partly her determination to keep the show, the party, together.

In a truly historic sense, we have been fortunate to have her. I join with everyone else here in saluting our comrade and sister Lee Rhiannon.


Contradictory results with a clear message


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Yes, there were mixed results in the Greens NSW upper house preselections which concluded at the weekend. But that in itself represents a revival in the fortunes of the more radical (or red-ish) Greens who have suffered a series of losses in such ballots over the past two years. Those losses were sweet and welcome news to the self-styled ‘mainstream progressives’ (or centrists) who lead the Australian Greens and who have long chaffed at the presence of Corbyn-like elements in the Greens NSW.

That losing trend is over.

There were two preselections for Greens candidates concluded last Saturday. The first was for a replacement for Mehreen Faruqi who will take the place of Senator Lee Rhiannon in Canberra when she resigns. That poll was won by Cate Faehrmann. She boasts long associations with the past and present leaders of the Australian Greens as well as prominent apparatchik positions in environmental NGOs in the past.

In the lead-up to the poll her prospects were arguably boosted by what one Blue Mountains anarcho-Green called ‘rule-mongering’. Faehrmann transferred from the Victorian Greens and in the past such members were required to wait three months before assuming full membership rights in NSW. Such a wait would have meant she could not contest the preselection. Her successful court action quashed that rules interpretation and positioned her as someone who could claim she wanted members to make vital decisions. In the event, she beat off the challenge of three lesser known, but impressive, women candidates.

The second – and more fiercely contested – ballot was for the Greens upper house ticket for the next NSW elections in March 2019. The result was very different.

Under the proportional voting system in operation for elections to the upper house in NSW, the Greens are usually guaranteed two elected MPs. Competition is therefore strong for the top two positions on the Greens ticket.

In this preselection the contest for these top two positions boiled down to a straight contest between two ‘mainstream progressives’ who emphasised environmental issues (Jeremy Buckingham MP and Dawn Walker MP) and two ‘Corbynista’ candidates (David Shoebridge MP and Abigail Boyd).

Buckingham and Walker were definitely in partnership having worked together and were backed by the same or similar people. Shoebridge and Boyd have had no such close association. They ran separate races although they drew support largely from the same membership pool.

The Corbynista tag applied to them is more than useful shorthand – for Shoebridge in particular. Earlier this year he issued his Greens Manifesto, a document that attempted to chart the way forward for Greens in a situation of stagnant and, on occasions, falling support. It carried on the cover – fully attributed – the subtitle of British Labour’s last election manifesto. ‘For the many, not the few’. (The second subtitle was, ‘For the planet, not profit’.)

Nor was the Corbyn allusion just a matter of sloganeering. In the Manifesto Shoebridge argued that it was corporate power that lay at the basis of our social ills and ecological crisis. As solution he advocated a revival in active, democratic citizen and workers power, leading to a redistribution of income and power and an enlarged public sector.. It did not hurt his reputation that Murdoch’s flagship broadsheet The Weekend Australian attacked him on its front page for wanting to soak the rich, set maximums for CEO pay, end state aid to private schools and nationalise key sectors of the economy.

In addition to naming the enemy and setting out an agenda of radical social demands, Shoebridge had a well-earned reputation as a successful campaigner for Aboriginal justice, workers rights, civil liberties and protecting local government.

Running on a similar platform was newcomer Abigail Boyd, a finance lawyer from the Central Coast, who also ran and lost in the replacement preselection won by Faehrmann (the final result was 53.5% to 46% for Faerhmann over Boyd). One of the more amusing sidelights of the preselection was an anonymous Faehrmann source describing Boyd to the Murdoch press as ‘a banker pretending to be a Bolshevik’.

On the other hand, Jeremy Buckingham and Dawn Walker, both sitting MPs, are constant campaigners who focus on environmental issues – particularly Buckingham on fracking and coal mining. Buckingham, moreover, is an outspoken and public critic of Left Greens and a close associate of the hostile Greens leaders from other states. He also has a massive social media presence.

The choice could not have been clearer. Shoebridge pitched his Greens Manifesto line, his campaigning on a wide range of issues and emphasised a program that encompassed the ‘four pillars’ of the Greens (participatory democracy, social justice, ecological sustainability and peace and non-violence). Buckingham ran on his high-profile anti-carbon activism, arguing that there could be no social progress on a dead planet. He also sought to counter Shoebridge’s radical social democratic appeal and support for unions by emphasising his own working class roots.

In the event, with 64 per cent of the Greens NSW 4,000 members voting, Shoebridge topped the poll with 45%, Buckingham received 30%, Walker 13% and Boyd 11%. With preferences from Shoebridge flowing strongly to Boyd (and the implementation of the rule that one of the top two positions should go to a woman) Shoebridge and Boyd secured the one and two spots on the ticket. The third spot went to Buckingham.

The reading of the tea leaves of the somewhat contradictory results of these preselections will preoccupy members for a period. That’s only natural in a party where there has been intense political rivalry. (A rivalry, by the way, that has not distracted from extra-parliamentary campaigning as the candidates actually sought to prove their credentials by encouraging and participating in such activity.) What is incontestable is that any threat to the political biodiversity of the Greens NSW has now passed. The Greens will not be bypassed by the general trend to the left.

Barricades closed the streets but opened the way

50 years since the Night of the Barricades and a revolutionary
moment in France… Video version of this article here

Reflections by Hall Greenland

The Night of the Barricades in Paris on May 10-11 fifty years ago is arguably the most dramatic event of 1968. That’s saying something as this was a year of rebellions, insurgencies and revolutions worldwide.

Mainstream historians now talk of “the long 1968”, lasting from 1960 to the mid-1970s, and key chroniclers such as Arthur Marwick emphasise the cultural revolution or transformation of that time rather than any political revolution.

Others claim central importance for the Tet offensive in Vietnam which demonstrated the limits of American power, or the suppression of the Prague Spring in August 1968 by Soviet tanks which meant the end of any immediate prospect of marrying democracy to communism.

Nevertheless, most observers find themselves drawn back to the images and realities of this iconic night in the heart of Paris. It was a night that released a cascade of events that held the promise of a revolutionary outcome in an overdeveloped country for the first time since World War II.

This was, as Eric Hobsbawm, the most accomplished historian of the short twentieth century, observed at the time, ‘unexpected and unprecedented’.

It was to be a revolution like no other, its spirit captured in the slogans – inspired by the tiny anarcho-surrealist group, the Situationists – which soon appeared on the walls of Paris and other cities:

It is forbidden to forbid
Imagination to Power
Be a realist, demand the impossible
Underneath the cobble stones, the beach
I take my dreams for reality because I believe in the reality of my dreams Commodities are the opium of the people
Revolution is the ecstasy of history
Quick, go forward comrade, the old world is behind you
Barricades close the street but open up the path

The English poet Stephen Spender described it as ‘poetry in the streets’. This playful and utopian graffiti, mixed with more everyday political points, was soon to appear on hundreds of posters produced by the fine arts students of L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

But all that was in the near future. On the night of May 10-11 students had their backs to the wall.

The police, spearheaded by the black-clad, helmeted, baton-wielding, semi-military CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Securité), had already invaded and occupied the Sorbonne and Nanterre campuses of the University of Paris. On the afternoon of May 10 up to 30,000 students had attempted to march from the Latin Quarter to the Right Bank only to be halted at the bridges over the Seine by phalanxes of gendarmes.

In response the students voted to erect barricades in the Latin Quarter. More thn 30 barricades went up around rue Gay Lussac. They were assembled from construction materials dragged from nearby building sites, cars, billboards, garbage tins and cobblestones

Barricades. It was so 18th century. So French – although there had not been a barricade in the streets of Paris for 97 years. Street fighting, however, was of more recent vintage,

Street fighters might have been in short supply in sleepy London town, as Mick Jagger was to sing later in 1968, but not in Paris and other French cities where students had been blooded in solidarity protests in support of colonial fighters.

In October 1961, for instance, Paris students battled police in protests over the killings of hundreds, of Algerians who had defied a ban on October 17 to march in favour of Algerian independence. Their bodies had washed up on the banks of the Seine. Since then marches in favour of the Cuban revolution and the civil rights movement in the United States had regularly ended in street clashes. The bombing and napalming of Vietnam had aroused an even wider movement, one that politicised high school students.

The solidarity demonstrations were not only expressions of anger but celebrations of victories. Revolutionary success was in the air. The Algerians attained their independence, Cuba survived, and as well as tragedy there was grandeur and heroism in the resistance of the Vietnamese. At the core of all the student actions in 1968 were would-be revolutionaries, a bewildering melange of anarchists, Trotskyists, Maoists and radical Christians.

It was the jailing of student protesters after Vietnam demonstrations in 1967 that led to campus disturbances at Nanterre (the University of Paris campus in the western suburbs). Some students were disciplined which led to more campus strikes and protests and eventually the closing of that campus. Disciplinary hearings against Nanterre students were transferred to the Sorbonne on May 3, students rallied in solidarity and the police were called. As was their habit, they attacked protesters and bystanders indiscriminately.

Days of street battles ensued. Leading to the fateful night of May 10.

68 police and fleeing youth

On the barricades that night, there was a long wait as ministers considered their next move. They decided to wait until after the last train on the Metro. The police attack came at precisely 2.12 a.m. – we know the time because the pirate radio stations, Europe 1 and Radio Luxembourg, had stationed radio cars in the area and they provided a running commentary on the see-sawing battle that ensued. Pirate radio – or ‘riot radio’ as one minister called it – was the social media of its time.

The battle raged back and forth for hours in clouds of tear gas and the din of percussion grenades, the last barricade not falling until after 5 a.m. That no one died that night was a miracle. A future friend, the high school student Nicholas Baby, was hit on the side of the head by a tear gas canister which broke his jaw. It was the fate of hundreds. Medical students managed to get him away safely but many of the wounded were not so lucky. They were intercepted by the CRS and batoned mercilessly on stretchers or in makeshift ambulances.

The extreme violence used by the police during those dawn hours was witnessed by the middle class residents of the Latin Quarter, many of whom threw buckets of water into the streets to douse the tear gas or sheltered fleeing students. For their troubles, police burst into apartments in pursuit of students to bash.

The next day France awoke to the grainy images and reports of the night’s violence. Long inured to police violence against strikers and immigrants, this was different. The bleeding and bruised were bright kids, France’s future. Many were also the children of the middle class and bourgeoisie. Nicholas Baby’s father, for instance, was a top civil servant.

Class issues paled beside the police overkill. Officials of the main union federations – there were three of them, divided along political lines – met the next afternoon and called a one-day general strike for Monday to protest at the government’s use of extreme police violence.

Late on Saturday prime minister Georges Pompidou attempted to avert or defuse the general strike call by ordering the release without charge of the hundreds of arrested students and the withdrawal of police from the Sorbonne and Nanterre.

It was too late. On Monday more than one million people marched through Paris. Hundreds of thousands marched in other French cities. The students swarmed back into the now vacated Sorbonne and proclaimed their Commune.

Even at this stage, the Night of the Barricades might have been one more drama in the global student rebellions of that year. Even on the violence scale, Italian students had been involved in equally violent clashes.

It was what followed that assured the Night its place in history. As the week played out, young workers initiated strikes and factory occupations, first in the provinces at enterprises like the aircraft builder Sud Aviation in Nantes or the CSF-Thomson electronics plant in Brest, and then in Paris at the huge Renault car factories.

Within a week some seven to eight million workers (most of whom, incidentally, weren’t union members) were on indefinite strike as well as up to two million university and high school students. Every university as occupied as were approximately 400 high schools and half the larger workplaces.

While the historical images of the general strike focus on the occupied car factories around Paris, male blue-collar workers were in the minority of the strikers. All classes of workers were involved – the Canadian writer Mavis Gallant living in Paris was surprised to find gallery and museum workers on strike. Scientists at the French equivalent of the CSIRO also struck. Television went off the air – journalists and technicians angry at government censorship and control of content. In what proved to be some of the most bitter walkouts, women shop assistants closed Paris’s prestigious department stores. Even professional footballers occupied the headquarters of the French Ligue 1 and hung out a banner: Football for the footballers.

While they were not working the French were talking. There was an explosion of talk everywhere – “uninhibited, crude, theoretical, confessional” – as the famed British poet Stephen Spender, visiting Paris at the time, noted.

What were they talking about? What did they want?

Le greve general, la reve generale


A poster stuck to the main door of the Sorbonne embodied the heady mix of millenarianism, Marxism and sociology very much in the air then:

The revolution which is beginning will call into question not only capitalist society but industrial society. The consumer society is bound for a violent death. Social alienation must vanish from human history. We are inventing a new and original world. Imagination is seizing power.

For Spender, who spent every day and night listening in at the Sorbonne, the students were “against the consumer society, paternalism, bureaucracy, impersonal party progress and static party hierarchies. Revolution must not become ossified. It is la revolution permanente.”

They were in favour of a radical egalitarianism. At a general assembly in the Sorbonne’s vast amphitheatre, Spender reported students acknowledging that their key privilege was free time to think about and act on social issues. But it was a privilege they wanted to generalise to workers – and immigrants.

Alongside the big visions were the minimal demands of staff-student control of universities, freedom of political expression and activity on campus, and the importance of socially critical content in courses.

As for high school students, they were demanding a less stuffy school experience – the right to wear political badges to school, discuss contemporary events and culture in their courses, call their teachers by their first names and – scandalously in today’s terms – permission to smoke at school.

One of the most heartening moments of May was the demonstration which followed the barring of the return to France of the student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit who had visited Germany and Holland to arouse support. He was denounced as a German Jewish troublemaker by a Gaullist minister. Tens of thousands took to the streets chanting, “We are all German Jews”. It mightily impressed Mavis Gallant, the Canadian writer living in Paris, because it showed the young had put both the anti-semitism and anti-Boche prejudices of older generations firmly behind them.

The egalitarianism was not confined to the Sorbonne. When Paddy McGuinness, the libertarian and economist then living in London, later editor of the Australian Financial Review and Quadrant, made his way to Paris a week after the Night, he discovered the waiters in his favourite Paris restaurants had stopped calling him ‘Monsieur’ and now called patrons ‘comrade’. Spender also observed, “Everyone is called comrade”.

In the factories we have fewer accounts of what transpired. The powerful French Communist Party (it received over 20 per cent of votes in elections, employed hundreds of organisers, controlled the major unions and had a national daily newspaper) did what they could to keep students and workers apart. After May 13, for instance, there were no joint union-student marches.

At the time the French Communist Party claimed that the workers were only interested in pay rises – anything else was ‘adventurism’. Yet for days after the strikes began there were no such demands from workers. They were sharing in the general refusal to accept the status quo. Even when their union leaders came forward with pay demands, the workers in many enterprises insisted on adding vague demands for respect at work and more rights in their workplaces.

The union leaders had been taken by surprise by the sudden outbreak of the general strike but they had quickly taken control of the occupations. The French sociologist Jacques Kergoat, who conducted extensive research into the strike wave, found that in only about a fifth of the workplaces did general meetings of all the workers decide the main questions that arose – except, of course, the question of a return to work in June. Even a smaller number elected their own strike committees which were for the most part constituted by already established union delegates.

There was talk of worker self-management, even plans drawn up, in a number of workplaces. However nowhere was actual self-management begun and a start made in initiating a new social order.

Meanwhile one thing the Gaullist government and the communist leaders of the main union federation did agree on was keeping students and workers apart as much as possible.

When emergency negotiations between union leaders and government ministers were held over the weekend of May 25-26, both sides agreed to exclude teacher and student unions. The resulting Grenelle accords (named after the Paris street where negotiations took place) agreed to raise the minimum wage by a third, general wages by 10 per cent and to increase union rights in workplaces. Strikers were also to be paid 50 per cent of their wages for the days spent on strike.

Initially, despite their leaders, most workers meetings rejected the Grenelle agreement. In the stalemate that now faced France, the main left-wing forces – the Communist Party, the mainstream socialists led by future president Francois Mitterand, and the leftwing socialists of the Unified Socialist party whose figurehead was Mendes-France – each came forward offering to form a transitional government prior to elections. Separately; there was no unity.

This was an aspect of a more general failure of the rebellion. There was in May what more than one observer called ‘a great refusal’ of the status quo, but no advance of an alternative vision for France – certainly not by any organisation which had the following to make a difference.

This stasis allowed the French president General de Gaulle to seize the initiative once again. He had tried in a broadcast to the nation on May 24, proposing a referendum on the vague promise of more participation in decision-making in France. It had come to nothing as the government could not even find a printery that would print the ballot papers.

A week later, having first made a secret voyage to Germany to visit the generals of the French army stationed there to receive their assurances of support, de Gaulle broadcast again to the nation on May 30 warning of a possible (and improbable) communist coup and calling this time for general elections at the end of June.

This broadcast was followed by an outpouring of Gaullist support in Paris. It was their turn to stage a million-strong march up the Champs Elysee. It was not a pretty sight. They were chanting slogans such as ‘Cohn-Bendit to Dachau’ and ‘La France aux français’.

Here is Spender’s report of the drive-by that followed the march: ‘They came joyously claxoning up the boulevards, hooting at one another, hooting to urge others to hoot, stopping their cars suddenly, getting out to embrace some fellow driver or passenger, in their chic clothes and their make-up, their tawdry elegance, the triumphant bacchanal of the Social World of Conspicuous Consumption, shameless, crowing, and more vulgar than any crowd I have ever seen ….’

The left-wing parties and unions embraced this election solution and in the weeks that followed strikers were persuaded to return to work on the basis of the Grenelle accords. The government was free then to take on the students alone. It banned all the far left groups, outlawed street demonstrations, tightened censorship of newspapers, magazines, films and broadcasting, and sent the CRS to reoccupy the Sorbonne and the more recalcitrant factories. Police recruitment was stepped up so that by 1974 there were 50 per cent more police than in ’68.

The election was a triumph for the Gaullists. The left’s share of the vote dropped by 800,000. It had presented no united front. Besides, the five million young people between that ages of 16 and 21 had no vote.

The elections were not the end of the matter. Between end of May and the end of the year, seven people were killed. Hundreds were arrested and went to jail. Workers militancy continued – wage rises continued to accelerate in the years to come. There were also isolated but successful attempts at worker self-management. De Gaulle was forced from office in 1969, the left parties made slow progress to a more united front, and eventually Mitterand was elected president in 1981.

Since then, around every decade anniversary, the French debate the meaning of the Night of the Barricades and what followed. But do the events of May-June 1968 have any relevance today to overdeveloped societies?

The answer must be a hopeful but nuanced yes. The organised Left and unions are weaker, even if sympathy for left-wing ideas is growing. Neoliberal capitalism has successfully reorganised work so that workers more readily identify with their owners and managers. Many internalise the tenets of neoliberalism, adopting entrepreneurial mindsets.

Yet once again the aspiration for greater social equality is apparent. Likewise the emptiness of our democracy is giving rise to demands for more participatory democracy. The view that there is no alternative to neoliberal capitalism no longer has such a sure grip as it did, say, a decade ago, although alternatives remain as vague and tentative as in 1968.

Workers militancy may also be making a re-appearance – certainly that is the case in France. It’s worth recalling that the first meeting of what was to become the women’s liberation movement in France was convened in the Sorbonne during May. That very much remains unfinished business.

The most signal thing about the May events was that they were unforeseen. In the 1950s it became conventional wisdom that radical, let alone revolutionary, change was no longer possible in prosperous capitalist democracies. It was the ’50s variant of Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ thesis of the 1990s.

In our time, revolutionary change is again ruled out by conventional wisdom. Yet the paradox of the unexpected is that we can expect it to occur again. Don’t just take my word for it. As Sartre wrote at the time: ‘What is important is that the action took place, at a time when everyone judged it unthinkable. If it took place, then it can happen again.’

Hall Greenland was teaching in London in May 1968.
He was already an associate of the French groupuscule
Alliance Revolutionnaire Marxiste.
Like every other young leftist in Western Europe,
he (and his companion, Margaret Eliot) made their way to Paris as soon as they could.