By Paul Nave
In the wake of the horrific footage of youth detainees being abused by guards at the Don Dale detention centre, aired by the 4 Corners television program, Aboriginal activists and their supporters took to the streets to protest yet another indicator of the oppression Australia’s indigenous people face on a daily basis. While one of the detainees was white, the overwhelming majority of youth in detention in the Northern Territory and in other states, are Aboriginal. Indigenous and Aboriginal men and women also make up a wholly disproportionate segment of the total prison population, a fact which has not been altered for decades.
Some of the protest actions were led and organised by the Warriors of Aboriginal Resistance (WAR) – a group that formed during the protests against the G20 Summit held in Brisbane in November 2014. We admire the defiance and the militancy of the WAR activists, their commitment to their struggle and their refusal to be co-opted into the mainstream of the Australian political establishment. They are also correct to back the Malcolm X style struggle for black/indigenous people’s dignity, rather than the pacifist liberalism of the ilk of Martin Luther King. However, in our view the political program of WAR is mistaken in that it remains on the path of Aboriginal or cultural/indigenous nationalism. If Aboriginal nationalism becomes the dominant strategy adopted, in our view the struggle for the liberation of Aboriginal people will not occur, and could become co-opted into the capitalist political parliamentary system they rightly reject. Aboriginal oppression is bound up with implantation of Australian capitalism, the operation of which adversely affects Aboriginal people more than others. However, the overcoming of this oppression means linking with all others seeking liberation from oppression – especially the working class.
WAR declare that their program is that of Aboriginal nationalism. The first issue of Black Nations Rising, their publication states clearly:
Aboriginal nationalism (emphasis in original) is a philosophy….Separatism is integral to the worldview of Aboriginal nationalism. As Aboriginal nationalists, we identify with our respective tribal groups and the pan-Aboriginal nation. We are separate to ‘Australia’ – a colonial state built upon the theft of Aboriginal land and the genocide of Aboriginal people.
Despite our strong political disagreements on other issues, the Spartacist League first noted the existence of Aboriginal nationalism amongst WAR activists, and alerted workers to it. They correctly note:
“One of the key demands of WAR is self-determination for Aboriginal people. For Marxists, self-determination means the right to national independence. The cohering of nations is fundamentally a material process, not an idealist one. What is decisive is contiguous mutual economic exchange continued over a more or less lengthy period of time, which develops into a coherent political economy. It was the development of capitalism which drove the formation of the nation-state in its modern sense. The possibility of the independent development of Indigenous people into a modern nation was severed by the British colonisers, who almost obliterated the Aboriginal people leaving the shattered remnants of different tribes who continue to be viciously oppressed today.”
It is incontrovertible that the Australian colonial capitalist state was built on the theft of Aboriginal land and the genocide of Aboriginal people. This fact is the basis on which the oppression of Aboriginal people remains today. But the claim to an Aboriginal nation is another thing entirely. Marxists recognise the formation of nations as requiring elements such as a common language, territory, economic exchange and a culture. Nations form over time, historically, until all such factors are satisfied. Needless to say, these factors have not been present in the past, or now. WAR claim a pan-Aboriginal nation, but seemingly through a process of resisting the existing capitalist state which accords with the Australian nation.
Non-Aboriginal people of course do not experience the oppression of the indigenous people, and thus must respect the right of Aboriginal people to lead political movements which counter such oppression. However, non-indigenous people who wish to end Aboriginal oppression and join political movements to address this, must have the right to disagree with the political perspective being put forward. Aboriginal people do not necessarily come up with the correct political program to end their oppression in the same way in which workers also do not automatically propose the correct political program to end their oppression. There needs to be friendly and comradely political discussion and debate as to which strategy and tactics to adopt. To disagree with one’s political strategy does not amount to “disrespect” – it’s simply a political disagreement, a part of the struggle.
As socialists we warn against the political programs of Aboriginal or Black or cultural or indigenous nationalism, not because we don’t respect Aboriginal activists, but because we hold the view that the liberation of Aboriginal people is bound up with the struggle against capitalism, and is therefore bound up with the struggle to end the oppression of workers, through the strategic goal of socialist revolution. It should be noted in addition, that the oppression of women will also not be ended except through joining with workers in a common struggle to overthrow the rule of capital. Aboriginal people make up approximately 2% of the Australian population, but even if the proportion was substantially larger, there would still be a need to link up with, and fight alongside, the working class. Without the mobilisation of the working class, the Aboriginal rights movement cannot effectively be protected from capitalist state repression, let alone win complete liberation.
Lack of Union backing
One of the reasons why Aboriginal groups such as WAR adopt stances such as Aboriginal nationalism, is the almost total lack of Union backing for the struggle of Aboriginal people against their oppression by capitalist Australia. While it is true that there are a lot of fine words, and even some material support for Aboriginal actions, in the main the conservative Union bureaucrats sitting atop most Unions refuse to mobilise workers behind the cause to which they give verbal adherence. The rallies called by WAR in response to the exposure of the Don Dale abuses were dotted with a few Union T-shirts, but generally there were no organised Union contingents. Overpaid Union officials are long on the rhetoric of support for Aboriginal rights, and sport the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags on some wares from their Union wardrobes, but very short of organising workers behind this show. For example, in response to the Royal Commission announced by Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull as a result of the Don Dale exposé, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Secretary Dave Oliver penned an open letter to PM Turnbull, which welcomed the Royal Commission, only asking for the terms to be expanded. That is, no organising or attempting to activate workers in support of Aboriginal rights, but a letter to the PM! There have been exceptions, but generally speaking, the Union officials leave the Aboriginal rights movement to fight its own battles – an impossible task. This, combined with the glaring failure of liberal “reconciliation” can lead to some groups such as WAR to adopt the view that they are on their own. This feeds the sentiment towards separatism, and the militant sounding but politically compromising Aboriginal nationalism.
Careerist Union officials are well schooled in shepherding workers back into support for the Australian political establishment. They seek to integrate Unions and workers closer to the Australian capitalist state, and hence back “official” channels of the capitalist state investigating itself – such as Royal Commissions. It is hardly a secret that governments often launch Royal Commissions as a pressure relief valve, to give the impression that the powers that be are actually accountable. In practice, they draw out the process for years on end, while those suffering and some activists wait interminably for an outcome. Invariably, such inquiries become little more than a whitewash. Recommendations found by the Commission have no power to be enforced, and rarely are. Such was the result of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in custody, which released its recommendations in 1991. What is vital is that Unions are organised independently of all aspects of the capitalist state – from its politicians to its courts to its parliaments, and its “Royal Commissions”. Workers must be shown that they themselves have power collectively – a power far greater than any parliament or institution of the old world, and one which has the potential to usher in the new world of socialism.
WAR and the left
Since the formation of WAR, there has been tension between it and some left parties when it comes to working together in joint actions. WAR has in the past demanded that the left groups selling newspapers at WAR organised events to donate all of the monetary proceeds to them or whichever cause they are taking action over. Recently, in a post on Facebook, WAR appears to ban the Socialist Alternative and the Socialist Alliance from any future events organised by WAR. This post was then “liked” by some individuals from other left parties.
We are obviously not a part of any discussions that may have taken place between WAR and the two SA groups. We understand that WAR, as organisers and leaders of certain actions, have the right to lead these actions, and run the public events in general. It is of course recognised that in a broader sense, Aboriginal people have the right to lead the struggle against their own oppression, and should be respected as such. However, we do not believe it is reasonable to attempt to prevent left parties from distributing, or selling, their own publications at such public events. To ask for permission from WAR to run a campaign stall at a WAR organised event is understandable. More than this though, WAR cannot expect to control the actions of every single person which attends their public events, especially the members of left groups.
If there has been flagrant disregard for Aboriginal people and Aboriginal leaders at such events by some left parties, they should of course be reproached for it. However, there is a difference between this and an attempt to effectively censor the politics of left groups which are supporting Aboriginal rights actions. To attempt to prevent the distribution of Socialist Alternative’s Red Flag, or Socialist Alliance’s Green Left Weekly at WAR organised events appears to be direct targeting of left groups for their political views. It also does not appear fair given that presumably, WAR’s publication Black Nations Rising is being distributed unhindered. It may not be the intention, but it appears to be an attempt to censor the politics of socialist groups, in favour of the politics of WAR. By all means WAR has the right to put forward and argue for its politics, but as with all political views, it must compete with other perspectives. WAR cannot expect to retain a monopoly on the politics of every individual or group attending actions which they have organised. They must seek to convince others within the Aboriginal community and the non-indigenous but supportive community which demonstrably support their cause.
It is possible to respect, and give solidarity to, Aboriginal political groups, while disagreeing with their political outlook. The political outlook of WAR, by the own words, is separatism and indigenous nationalism. Socialist Alternative and Socialist Alliance can speak for themselves, but generally socialists do not agree that indigenous nationalism will lead to Aboriginal liberation in any meaningful way. In fact, because it turns away from the working class – the only class with the power to win Aboriginal liberation – the politics of Aboriginal nationalism can tend to alternate between a stand-alone militant defiance – which can be relatively easily crushed by the capitalist state apparatus – and liberal lobbying, such as appeals to the very politicians and parliament enabling their oppression. The two approaches are ultimately ineffective, and neither points a way forward. Both are effectively appeals to the powers that be, rather than an attempt to mobilise indigenous people, workers and their supporters in class based struggle against the powers that be.
The Aboriginal people suffer horrific racial oppression under Australian capitalism – this is not in dispute. It is also acknowledged that their struggle against this oppression can never be reactionary. However, it does not necessarily follow that the politics of the Aboriginal activists leading this struggle will always be revolutionary, or always progressive. Backward political positions can be inadvertently practiced, due to a number of societal and political factors, not the least of which is the almost total lack of working class mobilisation in support, due largely to conservative Union officials consciously preventing active workers’ support for indigenous people. Another factor is that some left parties do not challenge the politics of Aboriginal activists where they disagree, out of “respect” and “solidarity”. Such is for example, the program of Aboriginal nationalism. Aboriginal people do not form a nation, as they have not developed over time, a common language, common culture, common territory and common economic exchange. The possibility for this was eliminated by the invading British colonialists, which established an Australian capitalist state which also oppresses, though to a lesser extent, Australian workers.
An Australian nation has been formed, over time, comprised of Aboriginal people, descendants of British colonial rule and a myriad of migrants from numerous other nations. Aboriginal people unfortunately remain the most oppressed group within this nation, a historical wrong which needs urgent address. This however cannot be done without the overthrow of capitalist rule in the Australian nation, and in the Asia-Pacific region. The Australian nation is also a junior imperialist power, which oppresses the peoples of the Asia-Pacific, and, via partnership with US imperialism, the people of the world. This is one reason why the declaring of, and the fight for, a separatist Aboriginal nation is not progressive, but reactionary. It automatically excludes those who can assist the struggle for the liberation, rather than joining with them to overthrow the rule of capital.
Left parties and individuals which acquiesce to groups such as WAR when advocating political doctrines such as Aboriginal nationalism, are doing so out of a mistaken conception of “respect” and “solidarity”. The crucial element is to reach out to supporters of indigenous people in their capacity as workers, in order to mobilise industrial strength behind the cause. If this were to occur, it is likely that despairing ideas such as Aboriginal nationalism would not have a material basis on which to arise. However, the main obstacle is the self-serving Union officialdom, which view their own comfortable careers way above any token support for Aboriginal rights. The struggle to replace class-collaborationist Union leaders with a class-struggle leadership is bound up with the struggle to forge a revolutionary workers party, based above all on the theory and practice of Leninism. Such a party would champion the rights of Aboriginal people as part of a struggle to replace the system perpetuating the oppression of Aboriginal people and the domination of working people – that of social production for private profit.