The Australian Political Situation and Tasks of an Anti-Imperialist Left

By Nick D.

The following is an abridged version of a talk given at Red Ant’s Peace and Liberation Conference in August 2022.

At the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920, Lenin argued that,

“Imperialism is characterised by the fact that the whole world is now divided into a large number of oppressed nations and a very small number of oppressor nations that are enormously rich and strong in the military sense.”

Today, it is clear that the world remains divided at two poles. On one side are the rich, oppressor nations and on the other are the poor, oppressed nations – only 1.5% of the world’s population live in a country that can be classified as ‘middle income.’

That is, 98.5% of the world either live in a rich country (like Australia) or a poor country. What is crucial is that the overwhelming majority of the world, 85% of the globe’s population, live in poor, oppressed nations.

Economically, this divide is evident using any indicator of social development such as the United Nations Human Development Index or HDI (which measures life expectancy at birth, expected years of schooling, average years of schooling and gross national income per capita) as well as Gross National Income (GNI) per capita which measures the average income for an entire country, both workers and the bourgeoisie.

Australia is a member of the small club of rich countries. In 2020, it had a HDI value of 0.944 and was rated 8th out of 189 countries, being completely surrounded at this end of the list by other rich, oppressor countries like Germany, Norway and the Netherlands.

The majority of neighbouring countries in Asia were at the other end of the spectrum such as Indonesia (HDI value 0.718, rated 107th), Bangladesh (0.632, 133rd) and Cambodia (0.594, 144th).

The latest data from the World Bank found that GNI per capita (in USD) for Australia was $56,760 in 2021. This is compared to the 2021 levels for Malaysia ($10,930), China ($11,890), The Philippines ($3,640) and India ($2,170).

This divide is even more stark if we were to compare Australia to the least developed countries such as those located in sub-Saharan Africa including Burkina Faso ($860), Ethiopia ($960) and Liberia ($620).

Politically, Australia and all other exploiter countries will do anything necessary to keep the world divided between rich and poor nations. War, invasion, coups, IMF debt traps, trade wars, embargoes, and sanctions: these are all of the tools used by the imperialist countries.

Australia is not the premier imperialist power, but has been involved in many acts of imperialist aggression such as the invasion of Vietnam, interventions in Malaysia, Indonesia, the Middle East and Afghanistan as well as arming Suharto against Timor Leste – all of which were aimed at securing the stability of the imperialist system.

Most recently, the Morrison Government – supported and continued by the Australian Labor Party (ALP) – joined AUKUS, a military alliance with the United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) in a blatantly aggressive move aimed at the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This follows years of escalating hostility and war-mongering against China and other ‘rogue’ countries.

The Historic Gains of the Ruling Class over Labour

Before we can ask ‘what is to be done?’ we need to first know what can be done. This requires a detailed understanding of the current political economic situation and how we got here.

After WW2, there emerged in the rich countries a kind of ‘social contract’ between capital and organised labour. A ‘long economic boom’ saw the imperialist bourgeoisie grant labour a number of concessions – evident in the ‘welfare’ system and other measures.

By the 1970s however, this system no longer served the interests of the ruling classes, and it was time for them to launch an offensive. As Doug Lorimer explained in 2002, this saw an offensive by imperialist capital in both rich countries and the underdeveloped world,

“Economically, the imperialist bourgeoisies needed to launch a sustained offensive against organised labour — and the working class as a whole in their own countries more generally – to take back the economic concessions granted during the long boom. Abroad, they needed to rollback the political concessions granted to the bourgeois regimes in the underdeveloped capitalist countries so as to force them to remove even the limited controls these regimes had in place to limit the extent to which imperialist finance capital dominated their economies.”

This era of ‘neoliberal globalisation’ began with the election of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States. In Australia, the neoliberal period was introduced by the Bob Hawke-led Labor Government that came to power in 1983. The main tool for this was the Price and Incomes Accord, a tripartite agreement between the government, unions and bosses – spearheaded by the ALP – which imposed a maximum increase in wages that unions could demand.

In the 1970s, inflation in Australia remained at about 10% and in 1983 unemployment was also at 10%. On top of this, there was a rise in foreign debt and issues with Australia’s balance of payments. From this context came the Accord.

Union leaderships agreed not to strike on the promise that wages would be raised in line with inflation (measured according to Consumer Price Index, CPI). While the unions kept their side of the bargain, wage indexation to inflation was never implemented.

This resulted in a 20% reduction in the wage share and 20% increase in the profit share of national income over the 13 years of the ALP government (1983-1996) – the biggest shift of national wealth from workers to bosses in Australian history, up until that time. This trend has continued with a greater share of total value produced by workers in Australia realised in profits than in wages. Liberal bourgeois economist Bill Mitchel, using ABS statistics found,

“…[since] March-quarter 2001 … corporate profits have grown…nearly 7.5 times, while total wages and salaries paid have grown 2.7 times…Since the March-quarter 2016, real profits have risen by 256 per cent, while wages and salaries have risen by just 7.5 per cent in real terms.”

Source: Bill Mitchell, 2021.

Furthermore, the introduction of free trade, cutting of social spending, deregulation and privatisation had little impact on inflation or unemployment. Inflation remained around 8% during the 1980s and unemployment remained above 6%. During the recession that began in late 1990, the unemployment rate peaked at 11% meaning 1.75 million people didn’t have a job. Unemployment remained above 8% when the ALP lost office in 1996.

Since the Accord, wages, working conditions and social services have been under constant attack by capital and the ruling class in Australia. What followed was one of the most sustained periods of working-class retreat in history of capitalist mode of production: collapse of working-class organisation; winding down or ending of mass campaigns; decline in trade union density; redundancies; privatisation; reduction in public services; corporatisation of state companies; unemployment; casualisation; atomisation and social decay of the working class.

Source: the ABS, 2020.

The Decline in National Liberation Movements and Ongoing Systematic Agitation by the Imperialist Class

The widespread decline in Third World revolutionary struggle and national liberation movements removed one of the major radicalising factors in the core imperialist countries. From the end of World War 2, national liberation movements were fought (and won) across all continents. Some of these were also explicitly socialist with the Vietnamese and Chinese Revolutions being major radicalising factors among workers, students and young people. As Max Lane reflects,

“As the US war against Vietnam escalated and everybody witnessed on television this war against a Third World people by an alliance of countries from the imperialist West, the contradiction between imperialism and the Third World manifested itself on the streets of the USA, Australia and elsewhere…there was still a big minority of youth (even a majority?) for whom the Third World loomed large and its struggles attracted solidarity. The most visible manifestation was the movement against the war in Vietnam. Figures like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara also became icons. The Mao cap was not uncommon at demonstrations.”

In the 1990s, the movement against the New Order dictatorship in Indonesia and Timor Leste’s struggle for independence were particularly significant sources of inspiration and anti-imperialist organisation in Australia.

In the late 1980s, the Timorese independence movement shifted strategy – expanding non-armed resistance and clandestine activities, particularly among youth. The 1991 Santa Cruz Massacre, carried out by the Indonesian military against unarmed civilians, was filmed and viewed across the world.

This event galvanised support for Timorese independence and a range of groups and organisations in Australia began working together with the Timorese community, which numbered several thousand. Marches, sit-ins, occupations, public forums, conferences and rallies were organised. In 1999, tens of thousands mobilised in Sydney and large demonstrations occurred across the country as violence spread throughout Timor Leste before, during and especially after the referendum on independence.

In Indonesia, the struggle against Suharto’s New Order dictatorship was also intensifying. A key moment was the formation of the People’s Democratic Party (PRD). In 1997, the PRD’s profile exploded in line with a massive state repression of the party, including arrests of leaders, bans on activity and repression. At this time, some sections of the Australian Left and independent activists formed close relations with the PRD which had members based in Australia. There was also a higher level of public awareness of the situation inside Indonesia, with mainstream coverage in newspapers and on television.

In short, the 1990s saw deep cooperation between Timor Leste, Indonesia and Australia among the Left as well as members of the general public in a way that has not been repeated in the subsequent two decades.

It might be possible to argue the Venezuelan Revolution in 2002 was of greater global political importance than the struggles in Indonesia and Timor Leste, but it only rippled across the Australian political landscape. Also, Latin America was the exception to the global trend. In the period since the 1990s and early 2000s, there has not been this level or amount of revolutionary struggle in the Global South – especially not in Asia – in ways that have impacted on Australia.

Key domestic and international factors for today therefore include: victories against national liberation movements (ensuring that politically independent nations are still systematically dominated by imperialist capital), a downturn in internationalist campaigns around Indonesia and Timor Leste as well as the demobilisation of organised and militant labour and social movements.

All of this has opened opportunities for the capitalist class to embark on propaganda campaigns without significant push back. It has also greatly improved the ability of the Australian ruling class to sow the seeds of national chauvinism and racism.

This is particularly evident in the propaganda war against “boat people” and refugees, ‘war on terror’ propaganda and now a mass campaign to promote hatred and xenophobia towards China. Both of these propaganda campaigns have been effective – evident in their effect on working class consciousness as well as being generally accepted in bourgeois or mainstream media and politics.

In other words, the relative victory of Australian imperialist capital both domestically and globally, has allowed the ruling class to embark on a fierce propaganda campaign of racism and xenophobia.

Widespread Humanist Sentiment and Remnants of Resistance

The general trend since the 1980s has been the demobilisation of labour. This, combined with the overall international situation, has led to a significantly weakened position of organised labour vis a vis capital.

It should be emphasised that even in periods of retreat, the contradictions and outrages of capitalism provide opportunities for socialists to convince new layers of workers and students of socialist ideas. We can convince more people when the tide is turning in our favour, but even if it doesn’t, we will still be able to convince some people based on ideas. This is the centrality of propaganda – thinking things through and saying things that are new, sensible, insightful, thought provoking and true is crucial.

Despite the huge gains by the ruling class over labour, there do remain pockets of organised working-class resistance, most clear in the militancy of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU). The increasing strength and militancy of the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU) is also a good sign – from the outside looking in, RAFFWU has a young membership base and seems unburdened by the stifling fear and bureaucracy of other unions.

There also remains a widespread humanist sentiment. This includes historical remnants and spontaneous expressions of oppression or outrage. Examples include:

Abortion rights rallies in response to the over-turn of Roe versus Wade in the U.S.July 2, Sydney: over 5,000 people, July 2, Melbourne: at least 2,000 people,  
July 1, Brisbane 2,000 people,
July 9, Brisbane 1,000 people. Other actions in Perth, Canberra, Adelaide and elsewhere.
Climate JusticeSeptember 2019 climate strike: 300,000 total across Australia. Large mobilisations in all capital cities: 80,000 in Sydney, 100,000 in Melbourne, 15,000 in Canberra, 10,000 in both Perth and Adelaide, as well as 22,000 in Hobart. 8,000 mobilised in Newcastle. Rallies also in regional centres such as Townsville, Byron Bay and Alice Springs. This was followed in January 2020 by significant protests during the bushfire crisis.   Source: The Guardian
Indigenous JusticeInvasion Day rallies have also been consistently big. This year, rallies were held across the country, except in Melbourne – due to Covid-19 lock down. In Perth there were several hundred protestors, Brisbane, Canberra and Adelaide all had anywhere between a few hundred to a few thousand. Sydney had the biggest mobilisation – at least 10,000.   Sources: Perth Now, Nine News.
Black Lives Matter 2020At least 20,000 attended the Sydney march, more than 10,000 in Melbourne’s CBD. Several thousand in both Adelaide and Brisbane and several hundred in Hobart.   Sources: The Guardian, 9 News.

This trend of widespread humanist sentiment, resulting in sometimes large yet unorganised and sporadic mobilisations is likely to continue. There is also potential for the re-emergence of a powerful climate justice movement (or a strong movement around another issue). In such a situation, it is important to find ways for direction and unity.

In relation to climate justice, presenting concrete demands which could be won under capitalism by a powerful enough mass movement will contribute a sense of direction to the movement. This could also start with campaigns against specific fossil fuel projects, that would also open up propaganda space for the national level campaign demands. At the same time, such a mass movement would need to be broad-based and involve people from different outlooks and groups. A unified approach is therefore of critical importance.

Another important campaign which has emerged is against AUKUS. The Sydney Anti-AUKUS Coalition (SAAC) was formed in September 2021 and includes peace, community, environment, social justice, independence, faith and socialist organisations and unions – although we need to note that these sectors have shrunk over the last forty years as the ALP and union demobilised in general. On 20 March 2022, the Australian Anti-AUKUS Coalition was formed with members from capital cities and regional centres in Queensland, New South Wales (NSW), The Australian Capital Territory (ACT), Victoria and South Australia (SA).

AUKUS is an example of Australian imperialism targeting China – a Global South state and therefore the campaign against it relates specifically to the central priorities of the anti-imperialist left. On top of this, anti-China hysteria and war-mongering is reaching new levels in Australia, and any opportunity to combat this – such as through helping to build established anti-AUKUS committees – should be prioritised.

What Should be Done & What can Be Done Today

The revolutionary overthrow of capitalism in Australia would cause a massive shift in the global balance of power. While Australia is not the premier imperialist power, it remains a powerful and constant source of imperialist oppression over nations in Asia and the Pacific. The Australian ruling class supported the New Order dictatorship in Indonesia and the invasion and brutal occupation of Timor Leste.

It has also supported numerous imperialist wars, such as the invasions of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan as well as ongoing aggression and war-mongering against China. On top of this, it plays an ongoing policing role and interference in the affairs of pacific neighbours including Australia’s former colony Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Another important consideration is if there is a revolution elsewhere, especially in the region in say Indonesia or Timor Leste. In a situation of revolutionary crisis that puts a country like Indonesia in the balance, or an actual revolutionary seizure of state power, the role of capitalist Australia would be crucial in attacking, repressing and defeating the revolutionary power overseas.

In that case, the size of the left in Australia, the (anti-imperialist) orientation of the Australian left, the degree of organisational and combativeness of the Australian working class (even if still far from being ready to challenge for power) would be critical in preventing Australian imperialism (in alliance with the USA etc.) strangling any new revolution in its cradle.

Even if the socialist movement and working-class organisation here in Australia was still weak, it is still perfectly conceivable that we could play enough of a role to prevent imperialist intervention from tipping the balance decisively in favour of counter-revolution.

A central issue is that most Australians accept, remain indifferent to, or support the imperialist system which inflicts such poverty, misery and oppression in the Global South. This is related to what Lenin described as the ‘decay’ that takes place inside oppressor nations. A subtle form is the acceptance or passive support of global polarisation and inequality. The more visible form of this decay is racism, xenophobia and national chauvinism. These ideological diseases also help divide as well as misdirect the working class in Australia away from understanding their own position as being exploited and taken for a ride by its own capitalist class.

This ideological decay is not by chance. Rather, it is created, promoted and reproduced to make sure the mass exploitation of Global South workers goes smoothly. The stability of the imperialist system relies on workers inside rich countries remaining convinced of a nationalist, even racist and chauvinist, perspective – otherwise there is the danger of ordinary people here realising their comradeship with exploited workers everywhere. That is a danger for the imperialist class.

As long as national chauvinism persists, the Australian working class will not be capable of organising the huge changes needed in our own country. Solidarity with all oppressed and exploited people is crucial for a deepening commitment to change here. Strengthening the struggle against all the injustices here is impossible without a deepening commitment to solidarity with all the oppressed and exploited people, alongside an understanding of how the global system of oppression and exploitation works.

It will also necessarily involve a deep ideological struggle against what Lenin called social opportunism. According to Lenin,

“The most dangerous of all in this respect are those who do not wish to understand that the fight against imperialism is a sham and humbug unless it is inseparably bound up with the fight against opportunism”

Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism

What does a deep ideological struggle against social opportunism look like today? What can we do to confront a situation in which the long-term interests of the international working class are sacrificed for some material short-term advantage? The two most effective tools at hand are constant agitation and propaganda.

We need to actively combat the idea that the interests of the Australian working class and the interests of the Australian ruling class are one and the same. We need to smash the illusion that the long-term benefits of the Australian working class lie in the subjugation of workers and other oppressed people in Global South countries.  

We need to illustrate that while super-exploitation of workers in the Global South might result in a few crumbs thrown here and there to workers in the imperialist countries, the lion’s share goes to the capitalist class and in doing so, only increases their ability to exploit ALL workers, their ability to maintain the dictatorship of the rich, their ability to ensure the subjugation of women and their ability to destroy the environment.

To conclude: the central task of anti-imperialists in Australia is the removal of bourgeois-imperialist rule. However, the level of consciousness and mass resistance remains low, while an organised anti-imperialism is not yet existent. Based on these material conditions and the organisational strength, areas of key importance are: education, agitation, propaganda and rebuilding. 3 tasks that we can undertake today are:

Building links with progressive forces both inside and outside the imperialist core. Beginning to promote a deepening commitment to solidarity with all the oppressed and exploited people;

An ongoing program of education and training to build a committed base of Marxist anti-imperialists with a strong understanding of how the global capitalist system works;

Propaganda & agitation to combat the imperialist mass media, ideologues and political class, as well as agitation and ideological struggle against social opportunism and national chauvinism.

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