Australasian Spartacist No. 226
WA Government Threatens to Axe Aboriginal Communities
Down With Racist War on Aboriginal People!
The following article is based on a presentation given by comrade G. Blackall at Spartacist League public forums held in Sydney and Melbourne in mid-April. Since then, in the face of ongoing anger and protest against the threatened closure of up to 150 remote Western Australian Aboriginal communities, the state premier, Colin Barnett, remains emphatic that an undisclosed number of communities will be shut down. While muttering weasel words that “No person will be forced from their land. No person will be forced from their community,” Barnett simultaneously declares that the state will not provide services to many of these communities.
At The Block in Sydney’s inner-city suburb of Redfern, Aboriginal militants and their supporters are also waging an ongoing struggle for affordable housing against the Aboriginal Housing Corp’s attempt to parcel off the area so greedy developers can build high-priced inner-city accommodation. This would result in driving many Aboriginal people from land finally granted to them in 1973 following one of the first Aboriginal land rights victories in the country. Facing intimidation from developers and the police, the Aboriginal militants have maintained a “tent embassy” on The Block for more than a year. In late May dozens of Maritime Union members rallied at the site in solidarity with the Aboriginal protesters.
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In November last year, Western Australian (WA) Liberal/National Party Coalition Premier Colin Barnett revealed plans to forcibly shut down over half of the remote Aboriginal communities in the state. On 10 March the prime minister Tony Abbott endorsed these proposed evictions of Aborigines with his callous remark that it wasn’t the government’s job to “endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices.”
Barnett initially blamed the threatened closure of Aboriginal communities on federal funding cutbacks. Later he and his chief of police tried to justify the closures through despicable and unsubstantiated accusations that these communities are hotbeds of child sexual abuse. The WA government’s threats are very real. In 2011 they drove more than 100 residents out of the Oombulgurri settlement in the Kimberley region, and in 2003 the previous state Labor government shut down metropolitan Perth’s Swan Valley Nyungah Community. Barnett’s menacing intimidation of Aboriginal communities has sparked angry nationwide demonstrations by thousands of Aborigines and others, including supporters of the Spartacist League.
To address the roots of Indigenous oppression and develop a program to defeat it requires a Marxist, historical materialist, worldview. The struggle for the material means to support human life and the exchange of things produced is the basis of all social systems. Early human societies shared access to the means of production and consumption amongst all members of society. Marx and Engels used the term “primitive communism” to describe such societies, which had relative equality between men and women, and did not have private property, classes or a coercive state. But where agriculture and animal herding developed, society produced surpluses, leading to a social division and hierarchy. Those who appropriated a greater share acquired the means to defend this property against the less privileged and to hand it down to their “rightful” heirs. Thus private property, classes, the state and the monogamous (for women) family emerged.
Marxists understand that attacks on indigenous people are a direct result of the development and rule of capitalism. The beginning of the conflict between tribal societies and the expansion of capitalism lay in the clash of productive systems of vastly different levels of technological development. The quickening growth of capitalism in Europe in the 18th century, extending to the ferocious exploitation of colonies, was a brutal and bloody process resulting in myriad indigenous peoples being driven from the land they had lived on for millenia.
Capitalism is based on creating profit from the exploitation of workers’ labour power. A tiny minority, the bourgeoisie (capitalist rulers) who own the banks, mines, factories and other industries, grow fabulously rich from this exploitation, while the working class (the proletariat) is daily forced to sell its ability to work in order to survive. The social power of the proletariat derives from its central role in production and from the high level of cooperation needed by modern industry. With its hands on the levers of production, only the working class can fulfil the task of sweeping away the capitalist system and reordering society on an egalitarian socialist basis, where production is driven by human need, not profit. The self-liberation of the working class is thus also necessarily the liberation of all of the oppressed.
Based on irreconcilable class differences, the capitalist system inevitably engenders conflict as the proletariat strives to resist the bourgeoisie’s profit-gouging exploitation. In order to hold down the struggles of the working class and oppressed the capitalist rulers maintain a violent state apparatus, a force of repression, consisting at its core of the military, police and prisons.
An obstacle to the working class fulfilling its role of overturning capitalism is the entirely false idea that this repressive state can be reformed to moderate its repression of workers and the oppressed and serve as an independent arbiter between classes. As Russian revolutionary leader V.I. Lenin explained in his pamphlet, State and Revolution (1917), workers and the oppressed cannot pressure this state to act in their interests, or lay hold of the state machinery and wield it for their own purposes. This state, being the instrument of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, must be smashed through socialist revolution and replaced by the dictatorship of the proletariat.
In Australia, the lie that the capitalist state can act in the interests of workers and the oppressed is inculcated amongst the ranks of the organised proletariat by a conservative, nationalist layer leading the trade unions and by the pre-eminent political representative of reformism within the labour movement, the Labor Party. Against Laborite reformism, which sows illusions in the capitalist system and trust in the state, we need a revolutionary Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard party of the working class acting as a tribune of the people, championing the rights of gays, women, ethnic and national minorities and all the exploited and oppressed as part of the struggle for international workers revolution.
NT Intervention Paved Way for Escalating Attacks
Unrelenting oppression is the ongoing daily reality for Aboriginal people, doubly so for those in remote communities now deemed “unviable” by the capitalist rulers. Aboriginal people face a life expectancy at least ten years lower than other Australians. They are largely excluded from jobs, with little more than 46 percent of those aged 15-64 in work according to 2011 figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Many remote communities lack basic infrastructure, face overcrowding in homes and suffer other indices of poverty, including endemic, chronic health issues such as rheumatic heart disease, trachoma (causing blindness) and malnutrition.
The threats to Aboriginal communities in WA are a continuation of the Northern Territory (NT) police/military “Intervention,” launched in June 2007 by the Howard Liberal/National Coalition government, expanded by the subsequent Rudd/Gillard Labor governments, and maintained by Abbott’s government today. Via the “Intervention” the state imposed punitive “quarantining” of social welfare payments and puritanical bans on the possession of alcohol and pornography. The lying pretext for these draconian measures was “child abuse” in Aboriginal communities, which were supposedly riddled with “paedophile rings.” After “examining” more than 7,500 NT Aboriginal youth and children, barely 0.5 percent were assessed as “at risk” of neglect or abuse while 40 percent were referred to specialists for poverty-related health problems. Furthermore, this state intrusion brought about a sharp rise in teenagers being prosecuted for consensual sexual relationships. Against the reactionary “age-of-consent” laws, we uphold the principle that it is nobody’s business, least of all the state’s, what sexual activities people engage in as long as it is mutually consensual.
In response to Howard’s launch of the “Intervention,” former senior Aboriginal public servant Pat Turner told the truth: “this Government is using child sexual abuse as the Trojan horse to resume total control of our lands.” The land grab that followed served the interest of the bourgeoisie, who want unrestricted access to the mineral riches on vast tracts of land where some Aboriginal communities were allowed a measure of self-management. If Barnett is successful in his current threats, the capitalist rulers will gain unrestricted access on these lands as well.
Capitalist state intervention in the name of protecting Aboriginal children has always resulted in its opposite. In 1997 a damning report called Bringing Them Home detailed the horrors faced by the Stolen Generations, the tens of thousands of Indigenous children brutally torn from their families over a period of more than one hundred years. In his first days as prime minister in 2008, ALP leader Kevin Rudd sugar-coated the NT Intervention by saying “sorry” to the Stolen Generations. While excluding any possibility of compensation, and overseeing the deeply unjust and brutal occupation of Aboriginal communities, Rudd said that “the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.” As we outlined in “Racist Capitalist State Snatches Aboriginal Children” (ASp No. 222, Autumn 2014) under the NT Intervention not only have “injustices of the past” continued but they have become far worse. Rather than building decent homes and providing sanitation and clean water, today much of the paltry budget for Aboriginal affairs goes towards enforcing intrusive, repressive measures to take control of Aboriginal lives. While Aboriginal people are forced to live in squalor, the government increasingly uses this enforced poverty as an excuse to remove Aboriginal children from their parents for so-called “neglect.” By 30 June 2012 there were 13,299 Indigenous children in “care” across Australia, most enforced by government agencies. This is almost a five-fold increase since the 1997 Bringing Them Home report!
As an isolated minority with little social power, Indigenous Australians are often the first targets of schemes that the government plans to extend to broader layers of the oppressed and the labour movement. Welfare quarantining through the BasicsCard was rolled out in the NT Intervention. It was the precedent for “Welfare Reform” in Queensland’s Cape York, spearheaded by government flunkey Noel Pearson. Later these schemes spread to trials in urban areas such as Shepparton and Bankstown, with up to 70 percent of income quarantined. And long before the current blanket police surveillance of Arab and Muslim communities under the bogus “war on terror,” NSW cops had a surveillance station set up in buildings overlooking The Block in Redfern. This year, remote communities have been targeted for a ramped-up “work for the dole” regime requiring recipients of unemployment benefits to work up to 25 hours a week for 12 months a year, up from 15 hours a week for six months.
It is in the vital interests of the proletariat to fight this divide-and-conquer strategy, to fight for Aboriginal rights. As part of the broad struggle for proletarian defence of Aboriginal rights we call for union control of hiring, with aggressive recruitment and training for those disadvantaged in the workplace by the bosses—Indigenous people, immigrants, women. Union-run hiring halls point the way to reducing the impact of unemployment and casualisation which are symptomatic of the capitalist drive to profit. But ultimately it will take the revolutionary expropriation of industry by the working class to end the system of wage slavery and the grinding racist oppression of Aboriginal people.
Black Deaths, Reformist Lies
The working class and oppressed will either go forward together or fall back separately. This was starkly demonstrated under the 13 years of the Hawke/Keating Labor governments (1983-1996). Deeply anti-Soviet, these Labor regimes embraced the reactionary U.S./Australia military alliance and aggressively aided the U.S.-led drive for capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union. The restoration of capitalism in the USSR in 1991-92 was a massive defeat for workers and the oppressed the world over. Pushing “national consensus” at “home,” the ALP governments shackled the union movement to the state and the bosses through a series of corporatist Prices and Incomes “Accords.” They stepped up state repression, smashing unions such as the Builders Labourers Federation that didn’t accept their sell-out Accords, while overseeing a sharp rise in black deaths at the hands of the state.
By the late 1980s, in the face of escalating police and prison guard killings of mainly young Aboriginal men, the reformist left (for example the forebears of the Communist Party and Socialist Alliance) sought to divert anger and protest into a campaign to pressure the ALP government to act in the interests of Aborigines. A centrepiece of the reformists’ campaigns were demands for a Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody. Raising an independent class-struggle perspective, the Spartacist League opposed this call on principle. As we said at the time, calling on the state to investigate itself for crimes against the oppressed can only lead to a whitewash. Sure enough the Commission’s 1991 report into 99 black deaths in custody from 1980 to 1989 upheld coroners’ findings of suicide or accident in every single case. This included the death of 16-year-old Aboriginal youth John Pat in 1983, viciously kicked in the head by off-duty cops and left for dead in a paddy wagon, and of Charlie Michaels in 1984, hogtied, tortured and beaten for forty minutes by WA prison guards.
The Royal Commission’s report also included details of the case of Eddie Murray, “found” hanged with a blanket in a police cell in 1981, an hour after being arrested. Eddie’s father, the late Arthur Murray, had long been a target of persecution for his role in leading a 1973 strike by 2,000 mostly Aboriginal cotton chippers for an increase in their miserable wages. Arthur and Leila Murray rejected police claims that their son had taken his own life, and a second autopsy they requested in the late 1990s revealed that Eddie’s sternum had been broken while he was still alive.
Since the 1991 Royal Commission more than 340 Indigenous people have died at the hands of police or prison screws, a yearly rate of killing 50 percent higher than the period covered by the Commission. Cop harassment and killings continue with impunity. In March this year, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders constituted 28 percent of the total full-time adult prisoner population while making up only two percent of the country’s total population. And for Indigenous people, a stint in police custody can become a death sentence. In August last year, 22-year-old Aboriginal woman Julieka Dhu died in agony after being held in police custody for three days over unpaid parking fines. In 2008 Aboriginal elder, Mr Ward, fried to death after being arrested and transported more than 400 kilometres in the back of a paddy wagon in more than 50 degrees heat. To this day the reformist opponents of Marxism respond to each new black death at the hands of the state by calling for the implementation of the 1991 Royal Commission recommendations or investigations by “independent” authorities.
For a Class-Struggle Fight for Aboriginal Rights!
In contrast to the Laborite left’s cheerleading for Royal Commissions we call for a class-struggle fight for Aboriginal rights. There have been some examples of working-class defence of Aboriginal rights in this country. Despite the limits of their reformist program, in the 1960s and ’70s the Maoist-led Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) were prominent in support of industrial action by rural black workers, such as the 1966 Wave Hill strike by black stockmen and the 1973 cotton chippers strike at Wee Waa. BLF and Plumbers’ Union bans on demolition of Aboriginal housing in Sydney’s Redfern area is what forced the then-Whitlam Labor government to hand over the housing to local community control in 1973.
Later, in 1989 in Sydney, we saw an example of class-struggle defence of Aborigines after David Gundy, an Aboriginal worker innocent of any crime, was shot dead in his bedroom by special operations police. When angry Aboriginal protesters converged on the police headquarters hundreds of building workers from nearby sites downed tools and formed a perimeter around the demo, defending it against the assembled cops who would have loved nothing more than to riot against the black protesters.
In August 1996, during a 35,000-strong demonstration at Canberra’s parliament house against the Howard Liberal/National Coalition government’s attacks on welfare and union rights, cops attacked an Aboriginal contingent at the head of a march of unionists. Building workers, miners and others rushed to defend the Aboriginal protesters, forcing the cops back. Some workers stormed the parliament and went on to hoist the red Soviet flag and the Aboriginal flag over the coat of arms on the roof of the building. But this militant action in solidarity with Aborigines was a crime in the eyes of the pro-capitalist ACTU and CFMEU union tops. Bowing to bourgeois media hysteria they subsequently helped identify union militants to the state for prosecution. This was a message by the union leaders to their proletarian base that they should not reach out their hands to the oppressed Aboriginal people.
Decades of unrelenting attacks on the working class by the bourgeoisie, abetted by the acquiescence of the union tops, has coincided with a systematic worsening of conditions for Indigenous people. In 2004, fed up with relentless persecution and triggered by cop-related killings, isolated Aboriginal communities in Redfern and on Palm Island exploded in rage. On 14 February of that year, 17-year-old Thomas “TJ” Hickey died after being thrown from his bicycle and impaled on a metal fence while being pursued by police in Redfern. Immediately following TJ’s death the police waged a series of vile provocations against the Aboriginal community including taunting youth with racist epithets. Later that evening phalanxes of cops assembled. For hours Redfern youth courageously defended their community against this racist cop attack. Eventually, heavily outnumbered by some 250 police in riot gear, the protesters were dispersed. While those who drove TJ to his death walked free, over 35 residents, slandered as rioters, were later rounded up, charged with serious offences and some were hit with heavy penalties. While bourgeois media whipped up racist hysteria, we organised public forums in Sydney and Melbourne calling to mobilise union power to defend Redfern Aborigines.
Outrageously our room booking in the Victorian Trades Hall in Melbourne was cancelled on orders from then-Trades Hall Council (VTHC) Secretary, Leigh Hubbard. He had caved in to pressure from the Police Association (PA), then grotesquely an “affiliate” to Trades Hall. Protesting the cop attempts to silence our defence of Aboriginal militants, we took the issue to the left and workers movement. Making the point that the PA should never have been affiliated to the VTHC and that cops are not part of the workers movement but the enforcers of capitalist rule we particularly sought out union officials who had earlier walked out of a VTHC meeting in protest over an ACTU-brokered motion condemning union support for so-called “violent” behaviour by militant union activists. We argued that it is the same police who assault Aborigines who attack workers’ picket lines. Pursuing our fight, pressure grew within the labour movement which led to us winning our room back and being able to successfully hold our forum. This was a small victory not only for our organisation and Aboriginal people but for the left and labour movement.
Months after TJ’s death, on Palm Island in north Queensland, popular Aboriginal man Cameron Mulrunji Doomadgee was arrested for allegedly swearing while passing a cop, Chris Hurley. Forty minutes later he was dead in the police station, with massive internal injuries. When the coroner ruled his death was the result of “a scuffle,” Palm Island erupted in anger. The police station, watch-house and other buildings were set alight. The state retaliated with armed raids by 80 tactical response group cops. Lex Wotton, an Aboriginal community leader was accused of inciting the protests. Chloe Hooper’s book, The Tall Man, describes how, after years of legal proceedings that showed Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley had caused Mulrunji’s injuries, Hurley remained a free man. He was later awarded $100,000 for the alleged loss of belongings. On the other hand Lex Wotton, who stood up for his community against injustice, was sentenced to six years in prison. Such is the “justice” meted out to Aboriginal people in racist, capitalist Australia.
Racism, Tool of Capitalist Oppression
While racist oppression is very real, the concept of race is what Marxists call a false consciousness. As a biological category race does not exist but is a social construct. As veteran American Trotskyist Richard Fraser powerfully explained in his 1953 lectures, “The Negro Struggle and the Proletarian Revolution,” “The racial division of society was born with capitalism and will die only with the death of this last system of exploitation. Before capitalism there was no race concept. There was no skin color exploitation, there was no race prejudice .” In fact, the word “race,” referring to divisions of mankind, appeared in the 18th century during the expansion of capitalism beyond Europe, when humans became commodities in the large scale shipping of African slaves to North America, and on a smaller scale to Europe. The vast wealth accumulated by the British Empire was largely built by slave labour in the Americas providing raw materials for factories based on the labour of children and women in Britain.
Karl Marx recognised the British ruling class had a powerful tool to breed antagonisms between English and Irish workers. He wrote:
“Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life.
“The Irishman...sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.”
—“Marx to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt in New York,” 9 April 1870
Likewise Marx recognised how slavery deformed the consciousness of “free labour.” On the American Civil War he wrote:
“...every independent movement of the workers was paralysed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded. But out of the death of slavery a new life at once arose. The first fruit of the Civil War was the eight hours’ agitation...”
—Capital, Volume I
Indigenous peoples in the colonies were also subject to vicious racism. However, unlike the concentrations of Irish proletarians they were (and in the main continue to be) excluded from the industrial workforce. From the beginning of British colonisation in 1788, Aboriginal societies—based on what Marx called production for use (the appropriation of nature for the maintenance and reproduction of the community)—were an obstacle to capitalist access to water and control of grazing and crop lands.
In this period of “pacification by force,” Aborigines were either killed, driven into small pockets administered by Christian missions, or left to fend for themselves in the fringe settlements of cities and towns; some were drawn in as labour on pastoral stations. Beginning around the 1860s, the various states introduced racist “Protection” laws that confined Aborigines to areas that were much smaller than, and often distant from, their traditional territory, and frequently forced together disparate and sometimes mutually hostile tribal groups.
In his book, The Other Side of the Frontier, historian Henry Reynolds refuted the racist myth that Aborigines were a “failed people” who did not and could not resist the white colonisers. Frontier wars raged from 1790 to the end of the 19th century, but one of the last massacres, at Coniston in the Northern Territory, was as late as 1928. Most estimates indicate around 20,000 Aborigines died in these wars, and up to 2,500 Europeans. But the biggest killer of Aborigines were the waves of introduced diseases that swept ahead of white settlements. British colonisation saw the Indigenous population drop from estimates of up to 750,000 in 1788 to about 80,000 in 1888. The lowest population figures are in the 1920s, when there were maybe as few as 60,000 survivors.
“White Australia”: Racism as National Policy
The 19th century saw consolidation of primary industries and a domestic capitalist class, and the parallel growth of a working class along with an influx of peoples from around the world. Chinese immigrants flocked to the goldfields from 1851. On occasion there were murderous attacks against the Chinese such as at Lambing Flat in 1861. From the 1870s the Queensland sugar industry used Pacific Islanders as indentured labourers, there were Japanese pearl and trochus divers in the North, and Afghan camel drivers in the Centre. Some among the emerging workers movement viewed the non-Anglo-Celtic working people as rivals, providing the base for white racism in the workers movement.
In 1901 the Commonwealth of Australia was founded on the “White Australia Policy,” a racist compact between the white Laborite bureaucracy and the white ruling class. The ALP’s 1900 platform had only three policies, including “Total Exclusion of colored and other undesirable races,” and its 1905 statement of objectives proclaimed “The cultivation of an Australian sentiment based upon the maintenance of racial purity .” Aimed at developing a continent solely occupied by descendants of West Europeans, particularly those from the British Isles, the ALP’s founders within the union movement expressed the interests of a white, male “labour aristocracy” that fought fiercely to deport non-white workers and for protectionist barriers and state subsidies to foster industrial development by the Australian bourgeoisie. At the same time, many Labor-loyal unions excluded women and Aboriginal people from unionised jobs. The continuing attempted genocide of Indigenous people formed the background to, and was an integral part of, the “White Australia” Policy. The 1901 Constitution excluded Aborigines from population censuses, unlike sheep, a key economic resource, which were rigorously counted. This meant Aborigines were not included when allocating tax money to the states for services like schools and hospitals.
The “Race Powers” clause of the Constitution gave the federal government powers to make special laws based on race, including one of the first Acts of parliament, the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act that enabled the wholesale deportation of Pacific Islanders, Chinese, Japanese and Afghans. The “Race Powers” clause explicitly did not apply to “the aboriginal race in any state.” Their treatment was left entirely in state hands.
Official reserves on marginal lands were established to segregate Aborigines from Europeans. The reserves were run much like prisons. In 1918 the Queensland government began using Palm Island to confine Aborigines deemed “disruptive,” which included anyone who tried to speak their native language or even women who became pregnant to white men. This system of “pass laws” and reserves was taken as a model for the brutal Apartheid system enforced in South Africa from 1948.
From 1937, “Assimilation” of Aborigines became the official policy of all state governments. Aboriginal people of mixed descent were to be “made the same” as white society whether they wanted to be or not. Those considered “full bloods” were to be isolated on reserves where they were expected to dwindle to nothing. Notorious Western Australian “Chief Aboriginal Protector,” Auber Octavius Neville, summed up the assimilationist future for the “native race”: “ merge them into our white community and eventually forget that there ever were any aborigines in Australia.” Around this time, 99 percent of Australia’s seven million people were reported to be white.
From Assimilation to the Hoax of “Reconciliation”
During WWII Australian imperialism’s demand for war materials triggered an expansion of chemicals production, engineering and heavy industry leading to a growth in the numbers and weight of the proletariat in society. The collapse of British power in Asia following WWII drove the weak, jackal Australian imperialist bourgeoisie to a military and economic alliance with the U.S. After the war the Australian ruling class reluctantly agreed to U.S. plans to rebuild Japan as an anti-Communist bulwark in exchange for U.S. military protection under the ANZUS treaty, which first and foremost targeted the Soviet Union.
The rebuilding of Japan led to the further development of manufacturing in Australia as an adjunct to mining and agriculture exports. Soon the bourgeoisie was faced with labour shortages. Combined with a fear of Japan and the Asian masses, these shortages led the post-WWII Chifley government to declare that Australia must “populate or perish.” Alongside promoting women as child bearers at home, this racist policy sought to recruit “Anglo-Celtics” for immigration to Australia. However, when not enough workers from England, Ireland and Scotland could be persuaded to migrate, others from Eastern and, later, Southern Europe were declared to be “white enough” to qualify.
By 1957 Australia had signed a new trade relationship with Japan, including providing much of the coal and iron ore that helped fuel the rebuilding of the Japanese capitalist economy. As Australia moved into the “boom time” of the 1960s, the working class became numerically stronger and more multiethnic, urbanised, and unionised.
During this period Australian capitalism’s deepening intersection with world markets, particularly the drive for greater trade access and military alliances within Southeast Asia, forced a reorientation in foreign policy away from some of the more notorious exemplars of “White Australia.” At the same time there was a broad radicalisation amongst the working class against the U.S. and Australia’s dirty losing war in Vietnam. Mass working-class protests and strikes began to break out, igniting youth and other layers to take up broader struggles, including the fight against anti-Aboriginal racial discrimination. Following struggles against the widespread exclusion of Aboriginal people from basic public amenities, and after decades of campaigning by Aboriginal groups, a referendum in 1967 led to the removal of discriminatory references to Aborigines from the Constitution.
Threatened by the growing power of the organised working class, in 1972 the bourgeoisie enlisted the Whitlam ALP government to placate the proletariat through implementing various reforms. These included officially abolishing the “White Australia” Policy and introducing a measure of local self-government for Indigenous people on homelands, drafting the first land rights legislation (see “Class Struggle and the 1975 Sacking of the Whitlam Government,” ASp No. 225, Autumn 2015).
However, with the economic downturn in the mid-1970s, the capitalists started rolling back workers’ conditions. Whitlam’s ALP was replaced by the union-busting, welfare-slashing Liberal/National Coalition regime of Malcolm Fraser. Fraser’s attacks became increasingly unpopular resulting in the election of the Hawke/Keating anti-Soviet Cold War II Labor government in 1983. In parallel with Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the U.S., the Hawke/Keating government ramped up austerity and union busting “at home.” Under the U.S. umbrella the ALP government sought a greater role for Australian imperialism in the region.
Seeking to clean up Australian imperialism’s “image” in order to advance its interests in Asia, where the vile racist treatment of Aborigines had become an embarrassing obstacle to investment, the Keating ALP government started what they called the process of Aboriginal “Reconciliation.” This racist hoax absolved the ruling class of past and present crimes while Aborigines were supposed to resign themselves to an existence of all-sided racism. Keating ended 1992 with his Redfern Park speech, where he paid lip-service to past Aboriginal oppression so he could “say to the rest of the world that Australia is a first rate social democracy.”
The Dead End of Indigenous “Nationalism”
Today, as they openly trample on Aboriginal rights, the Liberal/National Coalition government and Labor “Opposition” are promoting the “Recognise” campaign, which projects a referendum on Constitutional amendments to acknowledge Indigenous Australians. This campaign is ostentatiously supported by corporate giants including mining companies Woodside and Rio Tinto. There is a groundswell of opposition to the “Recognise” campaign among black rights activists.
A counter-proposal supported by many Aboriginal people is the call for a treaty between the Australian government and the Indigenous people. This latter demand has been around for decades. Indeed, former Labor prime minister Bob Hawke, who was no friend of Aboriginal people, promised a treaty in 1988. There are already many agreements and contracts for land use between Indigenous bodies and corporations or governments, and a comprehensive treaty would be welcomed by, for instance, companies seeking to streamline negotiations for mining or agricultural projects. But Indigenous advocates pin different hopes on a treaty and point to examples like the set of agreements with New Zealand Maori tribes in 1840, collectively known as the Treaty of Waitangi, and to treaties in the U.S. and Canada with native Americans. These have produced few results and not ended indigenous oppression. The purpose of Waitangi was to enshrine Crown control over all New Zealand, with Maori lands deemed subordinate, “granted” land.
A treaty is just an agreement or contract and only has whatever power each party in dispute has to enforce it. An agreement between the rich, racist capitalist rulers and the impoverished Aboriginal people can only be based on an unequal balance of forces in which the bourgeois courts are bound to uphold capitalist private property. As long as capitalist state power exists to defend the property and profits of the parasitic bourgeoisie, no treaty will bring about a fundamental reallocation of the productive resources for the benefit of all.
A new current of Indigenous activists called Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR) has grown out of youth groups who protested the G20 Summit in Brisbane last year. WAR organised the recent militant demonstrations against the closure of the WA communities. Despite their audacity, WAR’s politics are a dead end for oppressed Indigenous people. While WAR’s journal, Black Nations Rising (BNR), correctly denounces sell-out Aboriginal frontmen like Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton, who blame Indigenous people themselves for the conditions they are forced to live under, and they have occasional articles that refer to solidarity with other oppressed groups and trade unions, WAR’s program is a form of indigenous cultural nationalism.
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.
Rather than bandying about terms like “self-determination” we address the question concretely by declaring our support for any attempts by the Indigenous people to claw back some of the land stolen from them, and to get whatever compensation they can from the racist ruling class. In those locations where Aboriginal people have a land base we defend whatever political autonomy they are able to wrest from governments, including the right to govern their land and control its resources. Where Aboriginal land rights come up against socially useful developments like hydroelectric plants or railways, the Aboriginal people should receive generous compensation for any deprivation of land or disruption of activity based on completely consensual agreement. Ultimately only the expropriation of banks, industry, mines and agribusiness through proletarian revolution will guarantee these conditions. As we said in our programmatic statement:
“Only the destruction of capitalism can hold out the possibility of voluntary integration, on the basis of full equality, for those Aboriginal people who desire it, and the fullest possible autonomy for those who do not, and make it possible to address the special needs created by more than two centuries of injustice and oppression.”
—For a Workers Republic of Australia, Part of a Socialist Asia!, October 1998
WAR reject this perspective. Instead, inspired by the U.S. Black Panthers, WAR reach back, at least rhetorically, to the heyday of radical U.S. black nationalism in the 1960s and ’70s. The introductory page of BNR No. 1 paraphrases the Autobiography of Malcolm X:
“even the best White members [of Black organizations] will slow the Black man’s discovery of what they need to do, and particularly of what they can do for themselves, working by themselves among their own kind in their own communities.”
While honouring Malcolm X for his intransigent and inspiring fight for black freedom and his rejection of the liberal pacifism of Martin Luther King, we warn against this dead-end separatism. As our comrades in the U.S. have written:
“Malcolm is often spoken of as a genuine representative of the black masses. This is only partially true. The social world of the unionized black auto worker, steel worker or docker, who recognized common interests and had engaged in common struggles with their white class brothers, was alien to Malcolm’s experience and knowledge. He had been a ghetto hustler, then a convict, and then the minister of a separatist religious sect. For Malcolm, the fundamental and overriding division in American society was black and white, not workers and capitalists. He consistently emphasized that blacks in America were outnumbered ten to one. That’s why he sought his main allies outside of American society.
“True, in the last period of his life he came to recognize there were genuinely anti-racist whites and he welcomed their efforts. But such whites that he encountered were predominantly liberal or radical student-youth, often motivated by guilt over their privileged social position. Clearly reflecting his experiences..., he viewed overcoming racism among whites primarily in terms of individual enlightenment, not social struggle.”
—“Malcolm X: Courageous Fighter for Black Liberation,” Young Spartacus Nos. 115 and 116, February and March 1984
Defence of Aboriginal rights is the litmus test for anyone claiming to be a revolutionary in Australia. However, the special oppression of Aborigines, small in number and largely excluded from the working class, is more akin to that of native American Indians than blacks in the U.S. We describe the black population in the U.S. as an oppressed race-colour caste, forcibly segregated at the bottom of capitalist society. At the same time they form a key component of the working class, making the struggle for black freedom a strategic question of the American revolution: there will be no social revolution without the united struggle of black and white workers led by their multiracial vanguard party.
Today, the notion of workers collectively engaging in hard-fought struggle in their own interests, much less in the interests of Indigenous people, is difficult for many to comprehend. Indeed for many Aborigines, despair over poverty, unemployment and state repression leads them to seek solace in spiritualism and various forms of cultural nationalism/separatism. Lacking any perspective for a proletarian-centred defence of Aboriginal rights, let alone a proletarian overturn of the capitalist order, the reformist opponents of Marxism tail and/or accede to such political demoralisation. When WAR called for “Left Political groups” in Melbourne not to use “this [13 March] Genocide protest to promote their wares nor ask for money,” the liberal reformist left readily complied, putting away their propaganda and censoring their own politics! In contrast, rather than ceding the political field to WAR and their nationalist program, we think Aboriginal people and their defenders have a right to hear competing programs, including the liberating goals of Marxism.
We reject the various forms of black nationalism. And we reject the anti-Marxist conception of “white skin privilege” that has started to pop up again with greater frequency. This theory claims that white workers and bosses are supposedly united in “privilege.” No. Despite the existence of a pro-capitalist labour bureaucracy based on a thin upper stratum of the working class, the proletariat as a whole has no material stake in the perpetuation of this incredibly unequal society, whose white ruling class enjoys unparalleled riches at workers’ expense.
For a Communist Future
It is in the objective interests of the working class to lead the oppressed in the overthrow of the capitalist system. However, for this to be realised the class needs the intervention of a revolutionary Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard party. Our model is the Bolsheviks who led the 1917 October Revolution. Under Bolshevik leadership, the insurgent working class championed the cause of all the oppressed to overthrow the Tsarist prison house of peoples and create the dictatorship of the proletariat. Despite great material poverty, the creation of the Soviet workers state in 1917 meant Native peoples such as the Aleuts, Chukchee, Inuit, Nganasans, and Nenets were no longer officially viewed as inferiors but as equals. Indigenous people were exempted from taxation and conscription. The Soviet legal system also required that Native people, including Native women, sit on courts of the people.
The Soviet policy of Korenizatsiya (literally “putting down roots,” often translated as “indigenisation”) included reversal of forced Russification under Tsarism, establishment of cinemas, cooperatives, clinics, and libraries in remote regions, and promoting usage of the local languages (some of which had no written form prior to that time) to the widest possible extent, particularly in schools, law and government. The policy led to the establishment of national/autonomous areas for Native peoples and local tribal governments.
A political counterrevolution beginning in 1923 led by a nationalist bureaucratic layer represented by Stalin systematically curtailed these gains. By 1933 Korenizatsiya was being reversed by the Stalinist leadership and in 1938 the Russian language was made compulsory in all Soviet schools. Despite the bureaucratic degeneration of the USSR and Stalinist betrayal of the internationalist aims of the October Revolution, the revolutionary program of the early Soviet Union stands as a beacon for indigenous peoples.
As long as society serves the needs of the parasitic capitalist class there can be no decent future for Aboriginal people. The Labor Party, a bourgeois workers party—based on the trade unions, but with a thoroughly pro-capitalist program and leadership—is the key obstacle to the vitally necessary class struggle against the capitalist rulers. It is necessary to split the working-class base of the ALP from the pro-capitalist tops through political struggle to oust the Laborite trade-union misleaders and replace them with class-struggle leaderships linked to a revolutionary workers party. Seeking to break workers from the nationalism and racism of the bourgeoisie, peddled to the proletariat by their Laborite misleadership, such a party would inscribe on its banner the resolute defence of Aboriginal rights, as part of the fight to overthrow this whole rotting racist system and establish the rule of the proletariat. Only international socialist revolution can open the way to the development of a global communist civilisation of material abundance.