The editors of Red Flag receive a lot of feedback from the socialists distributing and selling this publication around the country. One thing that stands out from their conversations this year is that many left-wing people feel that there is no point devoting serious time to political activism.
This is not a totally new situation. Most of the time, only a relatively small number of people become politically active because the chances of winning social change always seem exceedingly small. That’s been the case for as long as capitalism has been around.
Read a biography of any notable political activist or leader—from Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin to the founders of the civil rights and Black Power movements, to the women’s liberation leaders and people who built or rebuilt trade unionism—and you will become acquainted with people who, often for long periods, were isolated and marginalised as they tried and failed to change the reactionary societies in which they lived.
The situation facing activists in Australia today is nowhere near as challenging as in past times and other places. For example, going to an anti-government rally or organising a union in your workplace here won’t get you shot or imprisoned, unlike in many countries.
But the truth is that things are difficult. In recent years, there was a sense of excitement and optimism that perhaps things were changing for the better. Unfortunately, much of that enthusiasm has been burned out by a series of political defeats. The world is careening in the wrong direction, and it’s very hard to turn the situation around.
Senator Bernie Sanders in the United States and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom revived the idea of socialism as a mass movement of working-class and oppressed people. But their respective projects were ultimately smashed or incorporated by the establishments of their respective parties and we got instead a series of victories for the far right around the world.
Greta Thunberg inspired a global movement of school strikes demanding immediate action on climate change. But that movement has dwindled through the pandemic, and many of its self-described leaders have gone on to get cushy jobs at NGOs, rather than following Thunberg and becoming uncompromising activists. Despite overwhelming public support for immediate action on the climate emergency, the politicians still do next to nothing.
The Black Lives Matter rebellion in the US spread across the globe as it inspired people everywhere to come out against racism and police violence. It even provoked widespread discussions about defunding or abolishing the police entirely. Yet that movement too ultimately dwindled. And Black people continue to be murdered with impunity by cops, whose budgets have been increased.
Before the streets could be cleaned of blood in Iraq and Afghanistan, and while the carnage continues in Yemen and Syria, Ukraine is being devastated by an imperialist invasion that could yet provoke a wider conflagration between nuclear-armed states. And there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do about it.
More broadly, for most people in the world, life is getting harder. While the billionaires increase their already obscene levels of wealth, the United Nations food agencies say that close to 700 million people go to bed hungry every night. Food and fuel prices are rising relentlessly, seemingly beyond our control. Taxes keep going down for the rich while wages and welfare are held down for the poor.
Many people are concluding from all this that nothing ever changes. They ask: What’s the point of getting involved in political activism? But it’s worth asking another question: What’s the alternative?
Do you just sit back and let the scumbags who run the world go unopposed? Look on as they grind our living standards into the dirt? As they feed elderly people dog food in aged care homes? As they lock up and torture refugees? As they take our wealth and use it to buy nuclear submarines and give handouts to fossil fuel companies?
That can’t be the answer.
Our society is designed by the rich and their companies to serve their own interests. Everything about capitalism tells working-class people, poor people and oppressed people that the system can’t be changed and that the only way out of misery is to think positive thoughts and look on the bright side of life or, worse, to become part of the problem—to become a money-grubbing business owner or “entrepreneur”.
Every billboard, every advertisement, almost every Hollywood film and TV show is a lesson in improving yourself as an individual, buying something that improves you or keeping your head down and going with the flow, rather than collectively fighting against the rich for a world fit for everyone.
Yet if you look at the times when things have changed for the better, it’s been because a determined minority of people never gave up fighting as part of a collective, and through their determination planted seeds that sprouted into mass movements that overwhelmed those in power.
No-one ever achieved anything by giving in to all the pressures to capitulate and accept the world as it is. In fact, the socialist movement, and every progressive political movement, is premised on the refusal to do so, understanding that workers and the oppressed get nothing without fighting for it.
That’s the starting point of being politically organised today: you have to stand for something and fight for everything. If it’s not for human dignity, equality and solidarity, then what’s left?
There has been a vigorous argument over the direction of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) industrial campaign at Sydney University this year. Most recently, those who have been reluctant to argue and organise seriously for frequent enough and long enough strikes are now leading the charge for a “smarter” strategy of administration bans.
In late August, around 50 union members at Knauf plasterboard held a meeting in their Melbourne factory to discuss recent EBA negotiations, which had begun a few months earlier. A new HR manager insisted on attending the meeting and wasted people’s time explaining the wonderful job that company management had done taking care of the workers, in particular their recent and significant safety concerns. As he spoke, one after another the workers turned their backs on him. Soon, they began challenging the manager about a worker who had just been sacked.
Minoo Jalali was among those who resisted Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise to power in Iran. In the early months of 1979, she joined a mass women’s protest against the compulsory wearing of the hijab in public. “That revolution was inevitable”, Jalali recounted 40 years later in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “Nobody could have really stopped the force of it. We hoped that we could steer it [but] we were wrong. And the clergy hijacked it ... and deceived many people.”
Protests and riots have spread across Iran after a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, was murdered by the morality police. Amini was visiting the capital, Tehran, on 13 September when she was arrested for allegedly breaking mandatory veiling laws. Police beat her into a coma and she died three days later. Amini was buried in her hometown of Saqqez.
The international working-class movement has long been divided between two strategies to win socialism: the reformist and the revolutionary.
Revolutionary Marxists argue that socialism is possible only if the working class leads a revolution. So why organise among students?