I became active on the left when I was in my mid-teens. The main issue, as I recall, was 'capital punishment'. The Victorian State Government was determined to proceed with the hanging of Ronald Ryan in 1966.
I have vague memory of attending May Day rallies prior to that, with my dad, but it was around the age of 15 that my self-conscious direction moved to the left.
Other issues were the civil rights movement in the US and apartheid in South Africa. The scenes from both countries on TV filled me with anger - not just at what was happening but at the hypocrisy of the societies that did nothing to stop it other than words.
Within a year or two, the war in Vietnam came to dominate and I distributed banned literature at high school against the US and its allies in Vietnam. I had dabbled in some Marxist readings prior to going to university in 1969 and, caught up in the spirit of 1968, I was determined to be active at uni.
I couldn't have imagined in 1969 that my activism, and embracing a Maoist position, would lead to several arrests on demonstrations, suspension from university, loss of my Education Department Studentship and in 1972 imprisonment for contempt of court at Pentridge Gaol with two comrades.
1972 was a bad year to be gaoled because the movement generally was in decline. It never recovered its spirit, or its politics. With some notable exceptions, people wandered off into the ALP or, like me, became nasty dogmatists akin to zombies mindlessly doing what they knew best; torn between feeling self-fulfilment but deeply frustrated at the same time, sensing, but not comprehending, what had gone wrong.
Essentially, those of us who failed to keep thinking became 'religious'. This remains a huge problem today, as so many adopt the 'correct line' on issues without any need to investigate first. They found the formula of Truth long ago; everything can be slotted into it. The resultant disconnect from reality is palpable - and bizarre.
The years 1968 to 1971 stand out, to me, as a time when the Left existed loudly and clearly, through struggle against authority outside and within the established Left. What passes for left-wing today strikes me as antithetical to the rebellious optimistic outlook we had back then, and antithetical to the desire to argue and debate and, most importantly, to oppose fascist regimes and stand in solidarity with those fighting them.
Slogans such as "Not in my name" or "Hands of Syria" have nothing in common with the sadly evergreen "Smash Fascism!" An 'Anti-imperialism' that results in objective support for tyrannies that oppress people struggling for democracy is no different than the anti-imperialism of Mussolini and Gaddafi.
What's Left can be defined best by values and historical experience, and of course theory.
To me, key elements are:
- Support for Progress. I use a capital 'P' in order to stress that there is such a thing. It happens through human imagination, ingenuity and engineering. As Engels pointed out long ago, humans are distinguished from all other animals in that we can create what we can imagine. Harmony with Nature - Sustainability - have never been part of the left's lexicon. Marxists believe in unleashing the productive forces through the further mastery of Nature and through freeing research and production from the social relations imposed by capital. This is the opposite of the 'green' world.
- Internationalism: 'they' are 'us'. Be 'they' oppressed people resisting a fascist regime in Syria or asylum seekers reaching our shores in unauthorised boats. Or 'foreign workers' arriving lawfully on special visae. In a globalising world, humanity is one, as never before.
- Democracy. The left understands that democracy has come about through struggles against ruling classes over centuries, resulting in rights such as universal suffrage. We take so much for granted in bourgeois democracies. It was 800 years ago that a king was forced to seal a charter with rebellious barons to agree to be subject to law and not above it. Yet today even in developed democracies, we still have to resist encroachments on liberty, be they in the form of Section 18C that allows the state to decide what is offensive or the new anti-terror security laws that open the way to a police state.
- Last but not least, the working out of a left-wing position has always come through struggle against its opposite: the pseudo-left position. This was true when I was first active in the Vietnam solidarity movement, when we struggled against the old Left Establishment that tried to constrain our youthful rebellion and to gear the movement to serve ALP electoral objectives, and it is true today, in the new century. To the media and to most people, the pseudo-left is 'the Left'. Which explains why that kind of left is nothing more than an unpopular set of sects. I find the pseudo-left dull in its predictability and undialectical thinking. That is why I have used the terrific slogan from Paris 1968 as the sub-heading to my new blog 'C21st Left': "Beneath the paving stones, the beach!" It was either going to be that one or "Reach for the stars!"
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