[The following is a slightly expanded version of a speech given at the launch of the new Socialist Alternative office in Brisbane on December 1.]
The meeting included a panel discussion on Brisbane’s radical history, with Aboriginal activist Sam Watson; trade union militant Bob Carnegie; Carole Ferrier, one of the key activists in Brisbane in the 1970s and co-editor of Radical Brisbane; Sandra Bloodworth, civil liberties and anti-uranium activist during the “Joh years” and current editor of Marxist Left Review; Kat Henderson, National Union of Students queer officer and co-convener of Equal Love Brisbane, and Jon Lamb from the Revolutionary Socialist Party.]
I want to thank the comrades from Socialist Alternative for asking me to speak at this launch of the new meeting space, and inviting me to be part of this great panel on the radical history of Brisbane. It is inspiring to hear these struggles and learn from those who were directly involved in them.
The launch of the centre here in West End is a step forward for the left in Brisbane. West End is steeped in radical history, especially the struggle and resistance of the Murri and Aboriginal people from across Australia, still ongoing and determined, reflected today in the Sovereign Brisbane Tent Embassy not far from here.
This part of Brisbane is a place of rich working class organisation and solidarity. From the late 1800s, a sizeable community of radical migrant workers with revolutionary ideas lived and worked here, holding meetings and mixing with the then young trade union movement. They became actively involved in solidarity and workers struggles and strikes, so much so that the red flag – the symbol of revolution, especially after the 1917 Russian Revolution – was banned in Queensland. So fearful was the state of the influence that the revolution could have on workers, returned soldiers and the thousands of families that had lost someone from the senseless slaughter of World War I that the red flag was banned from any public display in September 1918. It was taken down from Trades Hall. Suspected radicals, socialists and trade unionists were harassed and monitored by the state.
In this censored and restrictive postwar political climate, right-wing demagogues whipped up hysteria among disaffected returned soldiers, sparking the infamous Red Flag riots on March 29, 1919. A very deliberate and racist pogrom took place, in which a mob of up to 8000 targeted houses, halls and teahouses here in West End; anywhere radical migrants were thought to be was attacked by armed thugs. The Russian Hall in Merrivale Street was the focus of a violent confrontation.
So in the context of struggles past and present, I congratulate the comrades for setting up this centre and bringing the red flag back to the streets of West End.
Listening to Bob Carnegie speak about the 1984 SEQEB dispute and the solidarity from the wharfies and other unions reminded me of what it was like to be living in Brisbane at that time as a teenager finishing high school. It was a stifling and reactionary political scenario. Being young or black or just looking a bit different and being out on the street in the city attracted harassment from the police. My family had recently moved down from Gladstone – where workers at the power station, one of the largest in the state, had been forced to take industrial action to get covered car parking. Their cars were regularly covered in a fine layer of toxic powder from the power station while they did their shift. It quickly eroded the duco. The industrial action taken around this and other grievances was a precursor to the broader SEQEB dispute and union fight against the draconian Joh Bjelke-Petersen government.
Today we face a significantly altered political landscape, though one in which the key strategic goal of building a strong, united and militant working class resistance and fight back is as crucial now as then. It is with this in mind that I would like to make some comments about the merger process between Socialist Alternative and the Revolutionary Socialist Party.
Racism and nationalism
The lie of the land in Australian politics today is one still referenced by the two enduring pillars of Australian capitalism: racism and nationalism. With these instruments, the likes of Gina Reinhart, Twiggy Forest and their coterie, along with the banks and corporations, exploit and weaken our class. It is why the dispossession and ill-treatment of Aboriginal people can take place so readily and why Black deaths in custody and the disproportionate rate of incarceration for Aboriginal people can be swept under the carpet again and again, year after year. Despite this, their struggle for justice and sovereignty continues.
It is because of the mind-numbing reinforcement of racism and nationalism by the ALP and the Liberals that xenophobic attitudes and the fear of refugees can proliferate, allowing them to be incarcerated indefinitely in concentration camps called detention centres.
The pro-big business parties can also get away with this because the last decade or so has been marked by a retreat and lessening of working class militancy, organisation and struggle. It hasn’t all been a one-way street, however. There have been some important campaigns and struggles countering this retreat, including recently in the workers movement. The militant and determined fight of the Grocon construction workers or here in Brisbane at the Queensland Children’s Hospital construction site are good examples.
For us here in Queensland, an immediate challenge is the fight back against the regressive Newman LNP government. The hide of this arrogant career politician, appealing to his ALP counterparts in parliament, asking them to display some “compassion” in the chamber during the final sitting of parliament before Christmas! What of all the state government workers sacked or about to be stood down? What sort of Christmas are they and their families going to have – or the pensioners and public housing tenants losing their homes, caravan parks and assisted care? For them this Christmas and year ahead mean only greater anxiety and hardship.
This is the political situation we are faced with and in which the merger is taking place. It is also against the backdrop of the ongoing international crisis of capitalism, something which, despite all the mystifications and distortions about how sturdy Australian capitalism is, the Australian ruling class has bearing down upon it and cannot escape. The fundamental and systemic global financial crisis that began in 2007-08 has not been resolved. Their wars of occupation and corporate pillage are failing. The environmental crisis continues to deepen, with the prospect of a future dystopia of climate change mayhem becoming a sure thing unless drastic and far-reaching social change takes place soon.
While it may be less tangible at times here, the twin financial and environmental crises of capitalism have provoked a crisis of legitimacy. Neoliberal solutions from one capitalist government to the next have gone nowhere, sparking resistance from left-wing and revolutionary currents internationally, most noticeably in Latin America but also in parts of Europe.
This crisis of legitimacy and overall malignant outlook for capitalism pose a challenge to revolutionary and socialist movements here and internationally. We face a battle of ideas in which the cracks in the system provide us an opportunity to get a broader hearing for revolutionary ideas and socialism. Not only that socialism is a viable alternative, but that it is a necessity, and that to bring this about needs the conscious building of a revolutionary party and movement in the here and now. A revolutionary party moulded and tested in struggle, capable of leading and developing diverse movements of resistance. A party capable of winning the confidence of those who are taking the first steps to challenge the system as well as those who have continued the fight from campaigns and struggles of the past.
The merger process is an important step towards this, though the merger in itself is not the end game. It is the start of the next stage of further unification of revolutionaries and a further step towards changing the balance of class forces in our favour and the ultimate fight for a new and better world.
Direct Action, January 14, 2013