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.

Alan Roberts 1925-2017: A revolutionary ecologist

A version of this obituary for Alan Roberts who died aged 92 in December is scheduled to appear later this month in the Age. A commemoration of his life will be held on Saturday February 3rd at a venue to be determined. A speech for his 90th birthday is found here.

Theoretical physicist, Marxist, and dog lover, Alan Roberts also has as good as claim as anyone to being remembered as Australia’s first ecologist.

While teaching physics at Monash University in the 1970s, Alan produced a whole series of provocative ecological essays, most within a social framework. They were collected and published in London in 1979. In the following decades, utilising his scientific training and love of mathematics, he became an international authority on the mathematical modelling of ecological dilemmas and their possible solutions.

Alan, who died December 12, was born into a single-parent family in Brisbane in1925. His father had died of his war wounds two months before he was born and Alan, his mother and his older sister survived the Great Depression on a meagre war widow’s pension. Despite his brilliance at school, Alan left at 15 to work in factories.

At 19, in the final year of the Second World War, he joined the air force. It was a turning point, although not in the usual way. In the library on the troopship bound for Borneo he found and read George Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, and disembarked a convert to socialism.

Back in Australia after the war, he joined the Communist Party and was a ‘good comrade’ until the Soviet repression of the Hungarian uprising turned him into a dissident. The party expelled him in 1958, charging him with being a ‘Trotskyite factionalist’ (his faction numbered three, he later admitted, one of whom was a spy for the local politburo).

Alan speaking at a Hiroshima commemoration at Monash university in 1974

After the war he took advantage of the Commonwealth government’s offer of free university places for returned servicemen. Alan had always been interested in science, although it initially took the form of writing science fiction. In the 1940s he had dozens of sci-fi short stories printed in newspapers and pulp magazines.

He flourished at university, earning a masters in physics in 1955 at Sydney. The flamboyant American-born head of the science faculty there, Professor Harry Messel, promptly offered him a job. However, it was the height of the Cold War and Messel soon received a visit from ASIO, who advised him to cancel the job offer. As Alan told it, Messel refused and showed the agents the door. No one was going to tell this academic boss whom he could and could not employ. Jealous protection of professorial privileges trumped so-called national security.

Alan, like many of his scientific colleagues, was soon campaigning against the Bomb. He was one of the founders of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Australia and, an articulate and well-informed speaker, spoke frequently from a ban-the-bomb platform in Sydney’s Domain.

In the 1950s and ’60s most of his scientific colleagues combined their opposition to nuclear weapons with support for nuclear power – the so-called ‘peaceful atom’. Nuclear power advocates promised electricity so cheap it would not be worth metering.

For Alan this was dangerous techno-utopian boosterism. For the next 50 years he wrote scores of articles and made dozens of speeches exposing the dangerous pretensions of nuclear power. He was still writing about Fukushima, for instance, until a few years ago.

Alan, second from the right, marches in Sydney against uranium mining in 1979. Tom Uren and Cliff Dolan (ACTU president) are to his left.

In 1966 he left the University of Sydney for Monash, where he taught until retirement in 1992. Monash in the 1960s was a centre of militant Maoism but Alan was having none of it. He had in fact visited Peking in 1966 in the first year of the Cultural Revolution and returned to write a report in the socialist magazine Outlook characterising the turbulence as basically a violent factional power play by Mao and his allies.

By now Alan was beginning to develop an interest in the new environmental writing coming out of the United States from authors such as Murray Bookchin, Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner, Theodore Roszak and Paul Erhlich.

In a decade roughly spanning the 1970s, Alan wrote a series of articles developing an original view of the sources of the unfolding ecological crisis. These essays were collected in The Self-managing Environment, published in London in 1979.

While his approach was basically Marxist, there was nothing orthodox about it. He cited Hegel and Marcuse as often as Marx. The essays ranged from refuting the idea that technological fixes can solve our ecological problems, to discussing the anti-ecological nature of the nuclear family. The collection also included an outstanding analysis of the meaning of the ‘green bans’ imposed by the legendary NSW Builders Labourers’ Federation.

But what strikes the reader from the very opening page is that Alan was not just a deep thinker but also an entertaining writer. Here, his opening salvo against those who blamed over-population for ecological crises: “The breathtaking arrogance of this analysis deserves some admiration; it is no petty task its disciples undertook, trying to persuade their readers that the main thing wrong with the world was the existence of the readers themselves.

“It was only too evident that when an ecologist, a population theorist or an economist voiced their alarm at the plague of ‘too many people’, he was not really complaining that there existed too many ecologists, too many population theorists or too many economists: the surplus obviously consisted of less essential categories of the population.”

His own central argument was that to concentrate on production as the source of our ecological ills, as many Marxists do, was too one-sided. Yes, capitalist production was concerned with profit regardless of environmental costs, but the other end of the equation was the consumer mindset. The system could only survive if people were prepared to go on buying more stuff, and it seemed they were, even if that meant they had to keep working long hours, instead of getting by with fewer commodities in exchange for more free time.

Alan saw that addiction to consumerism as a response to the alienation and powerlessness people felt, in the workplace and beyond. It acted as a powerful compensation. The remedy, he argued, lay in genuine democracy at work and in all social activity or, if you like, in ‘self-managed ecosocialism’.

It wasn’t just talk for Alan. He himself was a living, breathing anti-consumerist. His kitchen furniture consisted of rescued office chairs on castors and a pre-retro laminex table. His wardrobe was a few well-worn items from a previous decade and in utilitarian shades of navy and brown. If we all hanker after the style of another decade, Alan’s was the 1940s, even if his final car was a 1970s Corolla. Part of his anti-materialism was the abstemiousness of a Depression kid, and part was the absent-minded professor, who was given to eccentric habits like drinking whole pints of cream straight.

While he lived the life of the mind, he was not at all boringly high-minded. Far from it. He was witty and a good mimic. He could recite, line by line, scenes from classic 1930s movies and sing all the best songs from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas or Tom Lehrer. He would work these into his lectures and was immensely popular with students.

Alan and Sophie in Paris in 1971

He never had children but he took pleasure in the company of intelligent women over his long life, and in later years, in the companionship of his various dogs, whose genius and wisdom he would discourse on unbidden and at length. He was also a committed tennis player, proud of his competition trophies, well into his 80s.

Alan’s reliable good humour was challenged in the last year of his life by failing eyesight and losing the ability to read, his increasing deafness and the onset of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He had smoked from age 12 till he was 85. Even when his last days were wracked by severe coughing fits, he could joke about its relationship to cigarette smoking. ‘Who knew?’ he would ask straight-faced.

He is survived by a niece, Tina McKenna, his best friend and companion for 50 years Sophie Bibrowska, and – he would insist on this – his dog Billy. A memorial meeting marking his life will be held on Saturday February 3rd.


First thoughts on a preselection

What to make of the Greens NSW preselection result which delivered a 60-40 win for Mehreen Faruqi against Lee Rhiannon?

To close observers it was not a surprise. In the two preselections last year in the Greens NSW, what we might call the Brown Greens pipped the left or red Greens on both occasions. Mehreen Faruqi, as well as being favoured by this more moderate bloc, brought with her (as a ‘progressive’) a section of those who voted for the red Greens in last year’s ballots. It was always going to be a winning combination.

It was a true test of members’ views. Some 64 per cent of eligible members (or 2,152 of 3,310) voted in the online ballot, both the biggest percentage and largest number ever.

Lee Rhiannon did not expect to win. After all, the past and present leaders of the Australian Greens – crucially Bob Brown – had made it clear they wanted her gone. She had little or no support from current Greens MPs. And she had been characterised in the media as troublesome and divisive. In addition, she had been an MP for the past 18 years. These added up to a terrific handicap she wasn’t able to overcome, despite strong support from predominantly younger members.

Their support rested on the fact that she was clearly the candidate most committed to a member-driven party, to support for extra-parliamentarism and left policy positions. This had been exhibited in her controversial support for members, unions and policy when other federal MPs were inclined to do a deal with the Turnbull government over Gonski and the privileging of non-government schools.

It appears, however, that the result did not boil down to political positions. All the candidates supported leftish policies. Telling was the distribution of the votes for Abigail Boyd who most observers would put closest to Lee on policy: of her 281 votes when preferences were distributed, 201 went to Mehreen and just 80 to Lee. There was clearly something else operating here.

The central impetus does appear to have been a preference for a fresh candidate promising unity with the federal Party Room and not burdened with the fatwa from Bob Brown.

Lee and RDN

This result will be seen as a victory for the current MPs and the party’s present establishment – and their political strategy. This has been enunciated by the federal parliamentary leader as ‘mainstream progressive’. On the horizon of this approach is coalition governments – even apparently with the Liberals.

It is a strategy that will win some inner-city seats and is a repetition of the approach of European Green parties. It is not one that promises any more success than the limited and uneven success of the European colleagues. In the recent German elections, the German Greens, the oldest of the Green parties, received about 8 per cent of the vote.

Nor is this strategy of the ambition that is required in our present dire planetary and social circumstances. No one has that requisite strategy at this moment. Clearly. But it will require not more MPs, but mass extra-parliamentary movements of active citizens challenging the socio-economic system that threatens the biosphere and generates the social inequality that stunts human possibilities and democratic life.

Lee Rhiannon and her supporters understood this. This defeat is a setback. However, the debate they have initiated inside the Greens is a huge victory. We haven’t heard the end of it.

(6pm, 25 November 2017)

We need to talk about Labor

Corbynism (in suitably diluted form) has arrived even in the NSW branch of the Labor Party – long the bastion of the pragmatic and neoliberal right wing of that party. Our Blairites, if you will. If you are in any doubt about their disreputable antecedents, note they conferred life membership on Graham ‘Whatever it takes’ Richardson at the weekend.

But at that same annual conference held over the weekend, the delegates applauded Bill Shorten’s promise to end tax loopholes for Trusts as part of his ‘war’ on inequality. They also unanimously voted to limit rent increases to the rise in the cost of living index and to abolish no-grounds evictions. When it came to climate change and renewable energy, they endorsed the creation of a super public enterprise – the Renewable Energy Futures Corporation – to build and operate renewable energy projects and upgrade the grid. Even on Palestine they shifted to the left.

Each of these policy initiatives can be critiqued on the grounds that they don’t go far enough (why not 100 per cent renewable energy target by 2030 rather than 50 per cent? Why not give the recognise-Palestine policy teeth?) and that these policies are examples of the rank opportunism of Labor in opposition.

The first charge is certainly true but it cannot cancel out the fact that there has been a shift towards the required policy stance. These Labor policies are far from perfect but they are less imperfect than what preceded them. They are a shift in the direction of some version of left Keynesianism or left social democracy.

It is worth noting that Labor’s renters rights policy is nearly identical to the Greens’. As far as renewables are concerned, Labor has actually stolen an advance on the Greens. Our policy is in general favorable to public enterprise in building towards 100 per cent renewable electricity – see the general commitments at points 31 and 34 in our energy policy – but lacks Labor’s specificity. It is true that our policy was framed in an earlier pre-Corbyn era but we have been caught rather flat-footed. I can recall raising with John Kaye the need to push public enterprise as an essential part of our response to the climate emergency and John readily agreed, but added that the problem would be getting the party, even in NSW, to agree to foreground such a policy.

That was 2014. Times have now changed and at least two Greens NSW MPs have recently talked of nationalisation in the energy field but these are thought bubbles at present rather than policy.

As for that second charge of opportunism, certainly true, however it is significant that the opportunism involves a shift to the left. This branch of the Labor party is notorious for its electoral opportunism. The fact that it sees its prospects best served by this shift to the left is what is important. Nor should we ignore the fact that many of the policies adopted are sincerely supported by the more left-wing members.

This shift to the left throws into relief the opposite shift of the leadership of the Australian Greens towards a pragmatic centrism. Talk about misreading the portents of our times – social democracy everywhere shifts to the left and the Australian Greens parliamentary leadership decides to go in the opposite direction.

Fortunately this shift has not been entirely unambiguous. Certainly the RDN and Bob Brown attacks on Senator Lee Rhiannon and the Greens NSW and the invitation to Left Renewal to leave the party are signs of entrenching the centrist shift. But earlier in the year, in his address to the National Press Club, the AG parliamentary leader Senator Richard Di Natale tried out what we might call some Corbyn-lite ideas – lifting restrictions on unions, tackling growing inequality, curbing tax loopholes particularly in housing, founding a people’s bank and reducing the working week to four days or 32 hours. However, rather than pursue and develop such ideas, the emphasis has been on curbing any radical elements in the Greens and endangering our alliance with public school teachers in a desperate search to be pragmatic and ‘relevant’  to the conservative federal government.

It now seems that the Australian Greens are being upstaged by a leftward swinging Labor. This is, of course, what has happened elsewhere in English-speaking countries. It appears to be happening in Germany too as the Social Democrats shuffle leftwards. Elsewhere – France and Spain, for instance – the Greens have been overtaken by the radical left.

There does not appear to be any easy solution to this phenomenon although shifting to the right can definitely be ruled out as a solution. And any leftward shift on the part of the Greens that does not keep the ecological crisis at the centre of our orientation would be extremely short-sighted not to mention unacceptable – although we do need to be saying that capitalism is a danger to the conditions of the good life for humanity on this planet.

For the medium to longer term, a principled orientation around an activist extraparliamentarianism and carrying popular causes into parliament, plus a commitment to cooperative, democratic, decentralised, ecological socialism, appears to me to be a more useful orientation. It could help in pulling the whole political conversation to the left and help confirm Labor in its comparatively ‘moderate’ leftwards change of course. As well, it would act as the catalyst to the political reawakening and shift to a critical, active citizenship that is so important to our future and which we can now see emerging.



The crisis inherent in capitalism – can it last forever and what could transitions look like?

Talk delivered to ‘Our Pillars and [anti]Capitalism’ – a conference organised by the NSW Young Greens and the Greens Political Education Trust, March 11, 2017

The old is dying and the new cannot be born: in this interregnum
a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

Antonio Gramsci

The future confronting humanity is either socialism or barbarism.
Rosa Luxemburg

The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.
William Gibson

In this talk I propose to do a number of things

First give you a round-up of the Marxist explanations of the crises that afflict capitalism

  • The over-production/under consumption one
  • The profit squeeze one
  • The automation one
  • And last but not least, the ecological

It appears to me that there are elements of all these crises in the global situation we face today.

Then outline Marx’s theory of revolution.

And conclude by talking about the axes of our program if we want to replace capitalism with a global federation of ecologically sustainable republics of the free and equal – which is where our four pillars are directing us.

I will be mixing some personal history with this stripped down account of crises and opportunities inherent in capitalism.HG speaking

Initially, so that a lot of what I say will make some sense, I need to emphasise the role of markets in capitalism. Three key features …

  1. Yes capitalism is a mode of production that is stupendously productive, far in advance of previous modes of production, but if there are not markets then capital cannot realise itself, cannot earn a profit, firms cannot survive.
  1. These markets involve price competition if capital/firms/businesses want to sell production. In order to win that competition [and maximise profits] it is imperative to drive down costs of production.
  1. Now those costs revolve not just around the cost of labour but the other inputs – raw materials, energy and food. This last point is important because these days Marxism is not just a theory of exploitation based on theft of labour time but theft of nature.

Hold that thought about markets and the imperative to drive down the cost of labour and nature …1

That most acute analyst of capitalism, Karl Marx, did not expound a unified theory of capitalism and its crises and his remarks on what leads to its periodic crises expressed as recessions or depressions or even revolution are scattered through his work.

The main one and the one that was popular among my parents generation – I came from a left-wing Labor family with catholic connections both to the Communist Party and the Trotskyists – was the over-accumulation/over supply on one hand and inadequate demand/under-consumption on the other. This was the widely received explanation of the Great Depression of the 1930s and the 1890s.

Simply put workers have a contradictory role under capitalism – they must simultaneously be producers paid as little as possible and consumers purchasing as many commodities as possible. This leads to consumer demand falling short of the value of what is produced and capitalism – in the absence of new markets –stalling and/or falling over a cliff because it cannot sell what has been produced and realise a profit.

This explanation is very much in vogue for the current stagnation in capitalist economies. Stagnant wages and austerity in the US, Japan and Europe are clearly a drag on those economies by depressing demand. We have joined the queue now – wages rose by next to nothing last year and now penalty rates have been cut. The first wage cuts in a generation at least.

That problem was hidden for the past two or three decades by the astronomical growth in government, private and household debt – that bolstered otherwise lagging demand. But as we know credit was extended to people and countries that couldn’t repay and all kinds of financial products were spun off that until the revelation that the debts could not be repaid led to a banking crisis and brought on the GFC.

We are now in the situation that the old credit/indebtedness solution is not working despite giving money away to the banks at record low interest rates – this easy money is being used by the 1% to pump up the share market and fuel a property boom. It is not reflating the economy as a whole.

This thesis that capitalism has entered a period of long, even endless stagnation is now approaching conventional wisdom. Wolfgang Streeck is perhaps the most persuasive of them. His picture of the current crisis is multi-dimensional revolving around stagnation, oligarchy, corruption, depletion of the public sector and international disorder. He argues that all the old remedies or escape routes are no longer available. But his analysis starts from the basis of underpayment of labour, leading to inadequate demand, leading to stagnation.2

I note too that Jim O’Neill, the former chief economist of Goldman Sachs was in town this week advocating wages growth as the key to ending stagnation.3 How that’s going to happen in the absence of a free and powerful union movement god only knows. He was also canvassing helicopter drops of wads of free money into people’s bank accounts. As we know from the Rudd government’s response to the GFC, that stimulus works for a while but soon fades.

It was this kind of periodic over-supply/under-demand crisis that Keynes was responding to when he argued that the role of government was to manage and bolster demand so that ups and downs, stops and starts of capitalism, not to mention poverty and deprivation, could be a thing of the past.

In the three decades that followed WWII, what the French call the trente glorieuse, the application of Keynesian economics – along with a powerful union movement – certainly bolstered wages, credit and demand and the economy went gangbusters in these decades.4 In Australia, for instance, real incomes trebled in the 25 years following WWII and by the 70s the wages share of National Income or GDP in Australia [and this was fairly typical] was over 60 per cent – it’s under 50 per cent today.

That reality led to what has been dubbed the full employment profit squeeze crisis of the 1970s when a powerful labour movement, in conjunction with the hikes in the price of oil, inflation and big sending/big taxing governments, squeezed profit margins (and the rule of capital) so much that it provoked a counter offensive by capital that drove labour’s power and share of GDP downwards in the 1980s.

Breaking the power of the unions was not the only thing that freed capital from this profit squeeze crisis – globalisation and the technological developments accompanying it freed capital from some of its previous constraints. As Streeck says the result was that markets were no longer within states but states within markets.

The third kind of crisis that Marx predicted for capitalism was the increasing mechanisation or automation of production – what he called the rising organic composition of capital – which would have pretty much the same results as the first variant of crisis.

This spectre of accelerated automation appears to be haunting the world right now with all kinds of respectable economists and research institutes predicting a coming wave of automation allied with artificial intelligence wiping out swathes of semi-professional and professional white collar jobs.5

If this is right it will destroy the main social support for capitalism which is the careerist and consumerist middle class. They are the people who have bought the capitalist dream of work hard and consume hard and for whom it works. For now. Perhaps we can come back to this in discussion.

While these crises would cause misery and waste they did not necessarily lead to revolution and the new society in Marx’s view. His view of revolution is very much a life cycle one or birthing one. The new society would grow within the body of the old and when a certain point arose when it could grow no longer in the host, it would burst forth and create its own new economy and society.

In the Preface to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, Marx wrote ‘at a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production … From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins the epoch of social revolution.’

In the 1960s this theory of revolution of Marx’s was rediscovered. Even before the events of 1968, some of us had come to the conclusion that it was capitalism’s own development that would be its downfall. A crisis in success, if you like.

The thinking went like this: By creating a workforce with a continuously rising educational and cultural level, prosperous and with rising expectations, a workforce interested in quality of life as well as levels of consumption, capitalism was engendering a working class of blue and white-collar workers capable of taking over the running of society and re-orienting it to a new way of life.

It was a return to Marx’s classic formulation of revolution as flowing from the clash between the growing forces of production – the new confident, well educated working class and all the productive possibilities of an increasingly automated and science and technology based economy – on one hand, and the relations of production – the old hierarchical system of private ownership and management on the other.

For the 60s would-be revolutionaries there were four key elements in this new society that a new brighter working class would bring about.

First, it would be based on grassroots democracy – at work, in schools and universities, in communities, in the professions, in every sphere and at every level of the economy and society. This was time when there was much talk of self-management, workers control and workers participation.

Second it would involve he expansion of free time. We would need that time to undertake all the projects and new ways of living that we were now contemplating. This was the age of alternative life styles.

Third it would be just and egalitarian. Women’s liberation, gay liberation and self-determination for the first peoples would be essential parts of the new dispensation.

And fourth, it would be critical of consumerism and protective of the environment. Recall that it was the late 60s and early 70s that saw the appearance of urban environmentalists, the Green bans and the campaign to save Lake Pedder in Tasmania.

Those familiar with Paul Mason’s work will recognise the same approach.6 Mason detects the emergence of a new economy – thanks to the information technology revolution – within capitalism today.

Information driven technology or automation makes an abundance of free or low-priced goods possible. And also free time which is essential for real human freedom. Likewise the new information driven technology encourages new forms of economic life – collaborative and sharing. And where Marx saw the organised working class – produced by capitalism – as the force, the midwife, that would abolish the old and inaugurate the new, so Mason sees networked humanity, the product of this new stage of capitalism, as the agent, the midwife to the postcapitalist future.

In classical Marxism – though not in Mason’s work – this liberation of the new within the old would be via revolution. Perhaps we can return to this but can I respond to earlier remarks about radical reforms versus revolution? It strikes me there is a lot of truth in the argument that radical, genuinely social democratic reforms will be as difficult to achieve as revolutionary transformation. 7

I come now to what is being called eco-marxism.8 Marx himself was periodically aware of the ecological dimension. But a new school of eco-marxists have been more systematic about the scattered insights of Marx and Engels.

What is central to this expanded understanding of capitalism is that labour is only one part of what capitalism sucks into in its mode of production – it is only part of Nature which capitalism latches onto.

Capitalism is then a way of organising nature. Just as capital pursues cheap labour so it does with the rest of nature with disastrous results. Its pursuit of cheap food has undermined the productivity of the soil. Ransacking the Earth for cheap raw materials has led to the serious depletion of our ecological treasury. The drive for cheap energy has resulted in dangerous universal carbon pollution.

In other words capitalism destroys the basis for its own ecological surplus or profitability as well as the liveability of the planet.

I hasten to add that the eco-marxists are in a way just catching up with insights various anarchist theorists have had for decades prior to them, For my generation it wasn’t just the odd eco-marxist like Alan Roberts in Melbourne9 who woke us up to the link between capitalism [and bureaucratic socialism for that matter] and ecological degradation, it was thinkers from the anarchist tradition like Murray Bookchin who argued that a society built on domination of human by human would inevitably carry those practices over into nature as a whole with disastrous results.

In summing up the first part – it is conceivable that a working and middle class losing faith in the performance of capitalism, combined with the spread of ecologically awareness, connected and networked, awake to new technological possibilities, could provide us with the agency for creating a new society – a globally ecologically sustainable society of the free and equal.

Group pic

How might we mobilise that force?

  1. An ethical problem

 I’ll start with the hard part.

 As internationalists and egalitarians we fight for a future in which all inhabitants on the planet have equal access to a good life. But we know that if our Western consumerist lifestyles were extended to the rest of humanity we would need the resources of three or four planets Earths. So that is not a possible future.

Back in the 1970s we were much taken with the claim attributed to J K Galbraith that with equal sharing everyone on Earth could have a standard of living equivalent to an American household of 1941. That struck us as an acceptable level of frugal comfort. More recent calculations are that everyone could – on the basis of solar power providing the same amount of energy as fossil fuels do today – enjoy the standard of living of a French or Japanese household of the 1960s living in say Lyon or Kyoto. As Benjamin Kunkel observes, ‘that’s a rather stylish utopia’.

It would of course demand a global sharing movement that would involve material or consumerist sacrifices in countries like our own. This is a cultural revolution we should not be afraid to name or own. It was certainly part of the original Greens’ thinking summed up in the slogan popularised by Ted Trainer, ‘Live more simply so that others may simply live.’

The importance of this acceptance of a less materialist (and better I hasten to add) lifestyle cannot be emphasised too much. The weakness in Greece in the current ongoing crisis is cultural as much as anything else. The majority cannot contemplate leaving the euro, despite all the pain inflicted on them in its name, because they fear that it would mean leaving the modern, consumerist, cosmopolitan lifestyle.

Incidentally, the availability of a universal basic income may lead to a less consumerist style of life for many and help us towards that globally egalitarian life. Large and generous increases in genuine foreign aid, opposition to wars and the reversal of the despoliation of the global environment can only help too.

  1. Expansion of democracy

An enlarged democracy will be central to any transition. By enlarged I mean the numbers of participants and the scope of democracy.

I say this for a number of reasons. The first is that all revolutions are marked by a veritable explosion of democratic participation and mass confidence. That’s what revolutions are.

The second reason is that it is only mobilised public opinion that can shift government and limit the power of capital and regulate markets. The Bentley blockade on the north coast of NSW that stopped fracking in 2014 is my favourite example of this in our recent history. A referendum established the will of the people. Then the crowd at Bentley enforced it, over-ruling the rights of private property, the drive of the corporation, and the call of the markets – in a phrase democracy over-rode capitalism.

So it is not just the enlargement of participation that we need to be aiming for but the subjects that democracy can decide. It is one of the aims of neoliberalism as it was of classic liberalism to take economic decisions out of the realm of government and democracy. That’s the rationale behind deregulation, de-unionisation, privatisations, the independence of the central bank and global economic institutions. We need to champion the extension of democracy into these forbidden fields. The most heartening thing about the penalty rates decision is the acceptance by Labor, under Greens pressure, that parliament and government have the right to intervene in the labour market.

As well as a right to general democratic control of the economy we need also to be championing democracy in the firm or institution or locality as against the boss, the bureaucrat or developer.

What also needs to be cultivated are those manifestations of a new and different economy, democratic cooperatives, collaborative work as suggested by Paul Mason. This can be done most immediately in the field of renewable energy and housing. There are some of these but they are small in number and limited in ambition.

This cooperative and enlarge participatory democracy is the spine of the emergence of the new within the shell of the old capitalism.

I know that this enlarged democracy will worry some people as it did Oscar Wilde who once said ‘the trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings’. There are of course ways of lessening and spreading the democratic burden such as drawing lots, rotation and term limits. The Athenians solved these problems 2,500 years ago.

  1. Enlarged public sector – this involves not just an end to privatisation but nationalisations or re-nationalisations.

 If the market and its inescapable imperatives – ceaseless expansion, price competition, increasing profitability and reducing costs – are at the heart of capitalism and its ills – ecological damage, increased inequality, instability and insecurity – about which there can be little doubt, then a reduction or elimination of the dominance of the market is an essential element in a non-capitalist or socialist alternative.

We live in a time of accelerated marketization or expansion of markets. This is taking place via privatisation of public assets and services. Hospitals. Care for the disabled. Forests. Public transport. Education. Public housing. Are all being privatised as I speak. Goods and services which were formerly rights based on need, freely or affordably available and under some degree of democratic control, are now increasingly conditional on income, provided by private businesses, subject to the market and the bottom line.

If we believe in the equal worth of every human being, this has to be stopped and reversed. That will involve nationalisations – and Lee Rhiannon tells me she will argue the case for this in a forthcoming pamphlet. These nationalisations or re-nationalisations can start with education, public transport, electricity and housing with the aim of making them free or at the very least abundant and affordable.

As Paul Mason said about British Labour’s promise to re-nationlise the railways: ‘The point of privatisation is to make things dearer, the point about renationalising the railways is to make them free.’

The huge gap in what I have been listing here is, of course, the vital banking sector. Given the constitutional blockages involved this is worth some discussion.

  1. Shorter working week. Expansion of free time

The time we spend at work is under even the best of circumstances something we are constrained to do. I think Marx was right to say ‘freedom begins where socially necessary labour ends’ and that ‘wealth is disposable time and nothing more’. To freely do what we want with our lives as individuals and freely associated collectives requires free time. Throughout the 19th and 20th century workers grasped this and the shortening of the working week was at the centre of the capital-labour conflict. Whether that aspiration is still buried in the hearts of the modern worker has to be tested but I suspect it is. One of the reasons that modern employees accept ‘flexible’ employment, even casual or part-time or precarious employment, is that it holds the promise of more free time.

  1. A degree of planning

We are fortunate to be living in a time when we have at our disposal tools to ascertain what impact production or investment decisions will have on the economy and our ecological world. Modelling and computer power, and feedback mechanisms already in operation in social media and logisitics can quickly inform us about trends and impacts. A leap to quantum computing would only make this truer. So comprehensive and rapid human awareness about our interaction with the natural world – and rational guidance or planning – are now within our reach.10

So in a nutshell. The economic and ecological crises will continue. But new material possibilities will continue to ripen within the shell of the old. People will continue to probe for a way out of a capitalism that only offers increasing social polarisation, insecurity, hollowing out of democracy and ecological ruin. Success is not assured. Many of you will be aware of Antonio Gramsci’s summation of his own time which appears apposite to our own: ‘The old is dying and the new cannot be born: in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’ Trump, the rise of the nativist reactionary Right is one of those symptoms. A blasé, consumerist fatalism is another. But we can be a little hopeful. I leave you with this quote from Benjamin Kunkel from 2013:

 More important than intellectual debates is a generational shift underway. Global capitalism or neoliberalism under US hegemony, or just the way things are going: call it whatever you like, it has inflicted economic insecurity and ecological anxiety on the young in particular. They emerge today from their schooling into job markets reluctant to accommodate them at all, let alone on stable or generous terms, and they will bear the consequences of planetary ecological disorder in proportion to the years lying ahead of them. In any genuine renaissance of Marxist thought and culture, it will probably be decisive that capitalism has forfeited the allegiance of so many people under thirty.11

  1. David McNally, Against the Market (Verso, London 19930, particularly chapter 6.
  2. W Streeck, How Will Capitalism End? (Verso, London 2016). A shorter version of his thesis can be found in ‘How Will Capitalism End?’, new left review, 87, May-June 2014, pp 35-64

  1. Sydney Morning Herald, March 9, 2017
  1. Jessica Irvine, ‘Seven reasons to smileabout the economy’, SMH, December 19, 2016
  1. Peter Frase, Four Futures, (London 2014) has an excellent discussion of these possibilities.
  1. Paul Mason. ‘The end of capitalism has begun’. The Guardian online, 17 July 2015

A more extended version in Postcapitalism (Penguin, 2016)

  1. See W Streeck, op cit, pp 234-235 in particular. For a contra view see ‘Revolution after Revolution’, chapter 15, 366-396 in In the Long Run We Are All Dead (London 2016).
  1. See Benjamin Kunkel, ‘Capitalocene’, London Review of Books, March 2, 2017 for a survey of what he dubs ‘ecomarxism’.

  1. Alan Roberts, The Self-Managing Environment (Allison & Busby, London 1979)
  1. D McNally, op cit, pp 211-213. Paul Mason has an interesting discussion of modern planning in Postcapitalism, pp 271-292
  1. B Kunkel, Utopia or Bust, (Verso, London, 2014) p1p. Recommended for its lucid explanation of the various crises afflicting contemporary capitalism. Kunkel is a successful novelist and the quality of the writing is a cut above the usual.