Change, Abolish or Overthrow? Which Way to Indigenous Justice?
26-01-2018 – As the calendar marks another January 26, the spotlight is once again focused on the revealing fact that Australia’s national day marks the beginning of an attempted extermination war fought against the indigenous people of this land. The war raged for 150 years, and its legacy remains burned into the very establishment of the imposed capitalism the British Empire spread in the days of its colonial “grandeur”. In many ways the war continues, and Aboriginal people still cop the iron heel of oppression which no amount of “reconciliation” can gloss over. For example, Aboriginal people represent no more than 3% of the total Australian population, yet make up 28% of the prison population. A staggering 48% of juveniles in police custody are Aboriginal. The United States of America was founded on African-American chattel slavery, yet today 0.6% of African-American men and women languish in the notoriously overpopulated US prison system. By contrast, 6.7% of Aboriginal men and women are behind bars in the “wide brown land”.
The life expectancy gap between indigenous and non-indigenous people remains at around 10 years, with Aboriginal people perishing, on average, 10 years before non-indigenous people. By the government’s own figures, much greater incidences of circulatory, respiratory, nutritional and endocrine related disease account for most of this, as well as increased rates of cancer. Figures for the rates of indigenous employment are particularly galling. As recently as 2015, less than half (46%) of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over the age of 15 were employed. The housing conditions for indigenous people, especially in remote areas, are arguably worse than comparable Third World standards. On Palm Island, there is an average of 17 people per household staying or living there, often in only 3 bedroom dwellings. In the Northern Territory (NT), 90% of all homeless people are Aboriginal, and the NT is the location for 60% of all “severely overcrowded dwellings”. The “cashless welfare” trials – first used only on Aboriginal people, where welfare payments are quarantined onto a credit card – directly sets up apartheid like system of open public discrimination. These elements are only a part of the real oppression faced by the first inhabitants of what became Australia, a presence that pre-dated British colonialism by some 60 000 years. White Australia does indeed have a Black history, but one that is continually trampled on – with January 26 as the “national day” representing an open wound.
Change the Date or Abolish Australia Day?
January 26 marks the first landing of Captain Cook at Sydney Cove in 1788. From that date, the genocide and dispossession of the Aboriginal people began (hence “Invasion Day”). It was not until 1967 that Aboriginal people were officially recognised as part of the Australian population. This stark injustice has been protested by Aboriginal people and their supporters for decades – the first known protests taking place in 1938. Australia was established as a colonial-settler state, but genuinely acknowledging the prior custodianship of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people would call into question the legitimacy of the Australian nation. Hence, the Australian ruling class attempt to deny this history, while its police and state institutions deal out horrific levels of repression against indigenous people.
In recent years, demands to change the date of Australia Day have become louder and louder, prompting the radio station Triple J to cease playing its “Hottest 100” on January 26. Last year in Melbourne, Invasion Day protests gathered a crowd of 50 000. The Australian Greens have been prominent in supporting demands to change the date of Australia’s national day from January 26 to another day. A Greens Victorian MP, who is herself indigenous, reportedly received death threats for suggesting that the Australian flag should be flown at half-mast on January 26, to recognise that the day is a day of mourning for many Aboriginal people. Struggles to change the date of Australia Day will need to confront and defeat the prevalent racism that has resulted from its colonial history.
This year, the Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR) have raised the demand “Abolish Australia Day”, seemingly as a counter to the demand to #changethedate. WAR play a tremendous organisational role in facilitating and enabling political action to fight the ongoing injustices perpetrated against Indigenous people. WAR certainly have a point that the “change the date” demand is being backed by some conservative and mainstream elements, who seek to foster a kind of liberal nationalism. The Greens and the ABC funded Triple J are certainly at the forefront of this drive, but it is even backed by some employers. However, while the struggle of the Aboriginal people against their oppression is always progressive, it does not necessarily flow that the politics of the leading Aboriginal groups will follow in this direction. WAR’s political program is that of Aboriginal nationalism. We argue that all nationalisms represent a dead end for working people, and Aboriginal nationalism, especially the separatist variety sometimes given credence by WAR, is also problematic.
In asserting their own Aboriginal nationalism, by raising the demand “Abolish Australia Day”, WAR effectively deny the only national identity available to their non-indigenous allies, the most important of which is the multi-racial working class. For workers, neither is Australian nationalism the answer, as the fundamental division, as in all capitalist societies, is between the working class and the ruling (capitalist) class. However, we argue that the demand to change the date of Australia’s national day should be given critical support by working people, only insofar as it represents the wresting of an important concession from the elite who are responsible for the oppression of both the indigenous people and the working people. The support is critical, because it can easily be recognised that liberal and conservative working class opponents (corporations, employers, NGOs, the Greens and even some within the ALP and the LNP) can also come behind this demand – and some already have.
What is a nation?
Russian revolutionary leader VI Lenin once quipped a nation is “the bourgeoisie together with the proletariat”. This apparently off-hand remark nonetheless exposes all nationalisms as inimical to the interests of working people, in Australia and internationally. Marxists recognise that nations correspond to a particular socio-economic mode of production (capitalism), which came into existence with its rise, but will fade away into irrelevance once it stagnates into decay, to be replaced by a superior and higher mode of production (socialism). Nations are constituted historically, politically and economically, over a period of time. There is no doubt that the Australian nation was founded on barbaric genocide against the Aboriginal people, who were forcibly dispossessed. The profit system was then established on the mainland as well as surrounding islands, on the backs of the exploitation of wage labour. Despite the Aboriginal people not being fully integrated into the working class, through no fault of their own, it is the shared oppression that the Aboriginal people experience alongside Australian workers which is the key to their liberation. This remains the case even as we recognise that the oppression of Aboriginal people is in many ways more substantial than that of working class oppression.
The demand to Abolish Australia Day certainly sounds militant, but does not offer a way forward. WAR are correct to imply that simply changing the date of Australia’s national day will do little to address the ongoing issues the Aboriginal people face. We do not critically support a minor reform in order to thereby garner greater support for the Australian nation, much less the billionaire class which rules Australia. On the contrary, we critically support democratic reforms in order to allow the best conditions for the building of working class opposition to capital – the real source of Indigenous and working class oppression. Minor reforms, once achieved, tend to highlight the fact that conditions have not substantially changed, and attention often then turns to more basic aspects of capitalist exploitation.
WAR can also refer to indigenous people as “First Nations People”. Through this they imply that the approximately 500 Aboriginal tribes which inhabited what is now known as Australia were actually nations – either already established or in the making. These did occupy certain areas of the continent, and spoke their own languages. But the possibility of an Aboriginal nation – either one single one or five hundred small ones – coming into being through mutual economic exchange and the development of a definite political economy was annihilated by the invading British colonialists, who went on to establish their own nation over the top of the remnants of their brutal conquests.
This nation today contains vast inequality, being a component link in the chain of global capitalism, not to speak of being a willing vassal of US imperialism. As such, its economy today is in dire recession, and has been since the onset of the “global” financial crisis in 2008. Unemployment, poverty, homelessness, relentless de-funding of health and education are just some of the inevitable results. What is needed is the overthrow of the rule of capital and the establishing of a workers government, as part of the first rounds fired in struggle for world socialism. Only with workers in power will the long suffering Aboriginal people have a chance to seriously address their intolerable material conditions. In part, WAR does recognise the necessity for working class support, through their various contacts with some Unions.
For revolutionary integration
To be sure, it is understandable that some Aboriginal groups may make the error of adopting variations of cultural or black nationalism in the absence of a strong working class and left-wing movement. The chief culprits for this dire state of political affairs, where most younger workers can barely imagine what class struggle looks like, are the conservative and craven careerists of the trade Union bureaucracy, who ideologically defend capitalist rule. With a few exceptions, these well-paid Union careerists have almost totally abandoned the Aboriginal people to their fate – when they should be at least helping to mobilise workers to defend indigenous rights. This manifest misleadership of the Unions is assisted by some left parties, who recognise the betrayal of the Union leaders, but fear a political break with them.
In a similar way in which the Black Panther Party in the US was formed as a reaction against the tame liberalism of Martin Luther King, WAR appears to be a militant Aboriginal reaction to the abject lack of Union-led defence of the oppressed people of Australia, and the lack of a strong left-wing workers party. Despite the heroic bravery of the Black Panthers, their black nationalism impeded their political development in the direction of genuine Marxism – despite some adopting off-cuts of Maoism. The Black Panthers were unable, or chose not, to link with the US working class, and thus were eventually eliminated by the murderous police actions of the US state. We sincerely hope that nothing like this will be the fate of WAR, but their adoption of the ideas of Aboriginal and/or cultural nationalism loom as a barrier to forming the necessary bonds with Australian workers.
A bridge must be found between the primitive socialism of the Aboriginal tribes and the advanced socialism which supercedes capitalism as a higher mode of production, where advanced technology is used for the purpose of reducing, and eventually eliminating, alienated labour. That bridge is the multi-racial and multi-ethnic Leninist vanguard party, integrating the most class-conscious militants from amongst the Aboriginal, migrant and Australian born working class communities. Such a party will champion Aboriginal liberation as a component part of the socialist revolution which must overturn the rule of the banks, the CEOs, and the stock exchange.
The centralised political power of the ruling elite, with its army, its courts, its prisons and civil service must be met by the centralised political power of the working class, despite all manner of its heterogeneous cultures, backgrounds, indigenous and non-indigenous heritage, languages and so on. So long as the majority of Australian workers follow, or cannot articulate an opposition to, conservative Union leaderships, there will be no revolution – and no liberation for Aboriginal people – in this country. A revolutionary workers party is aimed at resolving this crucial issue. Let us build it now.
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