More than four hundred people packed into the Brunswick Town Hall for the opening panel of the 2019 Marxism conference in Melbourne tonight.
Kim Bullimore, Indigenous activist and member of Socialist Alternative, host of the conference, opened the night. There is plenty for Indigenous people in Australia to be angry about, she said. Aboriginal people are some of the most imprisoned people in the world. Black deaths in custody: 147 in the last decade alone. Indigenous suicide is taking far too many live: 35 in the first three months of the year. A new stolen generation. Third world diseases afflicting Indigenous people in one of the world’s wealthiest countries. Land stolen by mining corporations:
“The fact is, I am angry”, Kim said. “And so should you be. It is not irrational to be angry at the conditions faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It is not irrational to be angry at oppression and injustice. The fact is, this country would be a better place for Indigenous Australians if the racist structures of Australian capitalism were dismantled. This is why Indigenous Australians resist and we continue to fight for our rights.”
Justin Akers Chacón, a Mexican-American socialist and author of No One is Illegal and Radicals in the Barrio, spoke about the fight against the border wall separating the US from Mexico. The wall serves a very useful role for American bosses: “The border wall does not stop most migration; it creates the basis for the systematic deportation of a minority of workers and to scapegoat workers for political gain, to break strikes and to depress wages on both sides. As immigrants are about one quarter of the working class, this has become a central tenet of US capitalism”.
But resistance has been growing. Last year, prompted by the Trump administration’s policy of forcibly separating families and warehousing migrant children in holding centres, hundreds of thousands of people protested and marched, occupying and blockading strategic entrance and exit points at detention centres. And when Trump shut down the US government to pressure Congress to pass funding to pay for his wall, the flight attendants union threatened to strike, shutting down flights across the country. Within a few hours Trump buckled and reopened federal government.
The next speaker on tonight’s panel was Remi Kanazi, Palestinian-American activist and poet from New York City, addressed the conference by video. Remi was due to speak in person but, as is now becoming common for Palestinians, his visa was not approved after an aggressive lobbying campaign by Zionists. “Borders and walls divide and oppress and keep people apart”, he said. “Whether the US-Mexico border, Muslim bans, Trump’s fascism, the rise of the right in Australia, the theft of native land, US militarism or exploitation of workers. What binds us together is our common oppression and our imagining a future reality free from oppression.”
Marcus Harrington a former National Union of Workers delegate at the Woolworths distribution centre in the northern suburbs of Melbourne spoke about the recent industrial fire in Campbellfield that sent clouds of poisonous fumes over working class communities and put residents in hospital – the fourth such chemical waste fire in three years. “Would it happen in Toorak? Would it happen in Brighton? It wouldn’t happen in those suburbs. But the people in Broadmeadows are expected to cop it – they’ve suffered for so long. We’ve had enough. We’re getting organised. We’re just getting started.”
Husain Al-Qatari, a leading unionist at the recent 17-day strike at Chemist Warehouse followed Marcus. He explained that by standing strong and united the workers had achieved their breakthrough. If workers are to change the rules, we need more strikes.
Kath Larkin, candidate for the Victorian Socialists in the seat of Cooper in Melbourne and delegate from the Rail, Tram and Bus Union, pointed to the recent glimpses of resistance here in Australia. The week of rolling protests and vigils to stand with Muslim sisters and brothers. The student climate strike with mass civil disobedience in defiance of the government to stop Adani and the fossil fuel industry. The resistance by refugees to the barbaric detention regime.
“The Victorian Socialists seek to be the embodiment of this resistance. We want to build a mass socialist movement in this country. To bring the power companies back into public hands. To restore penalty rates and reverse all anti strike and anti union laws. To welcome migrants and refugees. To put politicians on a worker’s wage. To tax the rich and slash the bloated military budget and shut down the concentration camps.”
Simone White spoke about the massive revolts in Algeria and Sudan that have brought down two dictators in the last three weeks. In Sudan massive sit-in involving hundreds of thousands occupying the square outside the ministry of defence demanding an end to military rule and introduction of civilian government. They have removed two presidents and the head of military intelligence. They have learned not to accept anything less than their full list of demands, not to trust the military. People, with women playing a disproportionate role, have been organising their sit in collectively – food and water, health care, sanitary conditions, security, Christians and Muslims protecting each other while protesting sectarian violence by the government against the people of Darfur.
In Algeria, meanwhile, millions of people have demonstrated and struck and brought down president Bouteflika. But they are demanding an end to the whole regime not just its figurehead. Workers have gone on strike in all sectors of the economy: gas and oil, manufacturing and construction, government administration, bank workers, airport traffic controllers. But our struggle is international: “Their fight is our fight, the system oppresses all of us”. We all face the same enemies and the people in the Arab world know that the governments of countries like Australia back up their dictatorial regimes.
Tonight was just the first event in the Easter long weekend festival, with more than 90 sessions featuring talks, debate, discussion and cultural events, running all the way through from Friday morning to Sunday night.
Justin Akers-Chacon, who appeared tonight, will be giving several talks over the weekend. These include “Trump’s wall and the struggle against immigration detention” (Friday 11:45am), “Can the left transform the Democrats?” (Friday 4:15pm), and “Radicals in the Barrio: socialists, Wobblies and communists in the Mexican-American working class” (Saturday 2:15pm).
Remi Kanazi will appear via video link on a panel with Reem Yunis and Jamiel Sabbagh: “Free Palestine! Resisting Apartheid Israel” (Friday 11:45am).
Other international highlights include a session by veteran French socialist Pierre Rousset. Pierre will be speaking by video on “The revolt of the Yellow Vests: class rebellion in France today” (Friday at 0am). Klaus Henning, a member of the German party Die Linke in Berlin, will be speaking on “Tearing down the Berlin Wall: smashing the monolith” (Friday 2:15pm).
Lee Wengraf from New York City, author of Extracting Profit: Imperialism, Neoliberalism and the new Scramble for Africa, published last year, will be speaking about the imperialist carve-up of Africa (Friday 4:15pm). British socialist David Renton, anti-fascist activist for many years and author of many books on the topic, will be speaking on the fight by the Anti-Nazi League against fascism in Britain in the 1970s (Saturday 2:15pm).
The organisers of the conference are particularly honoured to host Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian journalist, human rights defender, poet and film producer detained on Manus Island for six years. Behrouz will be talking via video link about “Borders versus humanity: the war on refugees” (Saturday 11:45am).
Lee Rhiannon, longstanding Greens representative in the Australian Senate and NSW Legislative Council, will appear in several sessions. On Saturday at 11.45am she will be talking about the Tamil genocide in Sri Lanka, alongside Aran Mylvaganam from the Tamil Refugee Council, Helen Jarvis, a member of the Permanent People’s Tribunal and Red Flag editor Ben Hillier.
After lunch she joins Elizabeth Humphrys from the University of Technology Sydney and author of a recent book on the ALP-ACTU Accord and Tom Bramble, author of a history of the union movement, to speak about the Accord and the ALP’s role in introducing neoliberalism to Australia. Finally, on Sunday at 11:45am, Lee will be talking about her experience in the anti-uranium movement in the 1970s and 1980s with other veteran activists, Fleur Taylor and Sandra Bloodworth.
Helen Razer, regular contributor to Crikey and author of 2017’s Total Propaganda: Basic Marxist Brainwashing for the Angry and the Young, will be appearing twice on Sunday. At 10am she joins Kyla Cassells to speak on “The revenge of the US empire: press freedom, WikiLeaks and Julian Assange” and at 2:15pm on “My obsession with pant-suit ruling class ladies”.
Jeff Sparrow, a regular Guardian columnist and former editor of Overland will be talking about his recent book “Trigger Warnings: Political Correctness and the rise of the Right” (Saturday 4:15pm).
The Marxism conference will also host Australia’s largest left wing book sale, with thousands of books and pamphlets to choose from, including all aspects of left wing politics, history and literature, both fiction and non-fiction. Be sure to bring a big bag to carry away your haul.
The Marxism conference starts every morning, Friday through Sunday, at 10am. The venue is the Victorian College of the Arts. More details and full program are available at https://marxismconference.org.