[Marxism] Re: Iraq should cost Aussie PM his job

Ozleft ozleft at optushome.com.au
Sat Apr 10 07:49:58 MDT 2004

A response to Tom O'Lincoln, Denis Berrell, Gary MacLennan and Phillip 
Ferguson on Labor, Iraq and the wars of the 20th century

By Bob Gould

Tom O'Lincoln is being very summary and very demagogic in his response 
to my proposition that the Liberals stuck to the Vietnam War in the 
Australian parliament to the bitter end. It's true that there were some 
defections from the Liberal ranks towards the end of the war, but the 
Liberal-Country Party coalition continued, as I said, to continue 
defending the war in the parliament until their election defeat in 1972.

They did withdraw some troops in 1971. Tom doesn't even refer to the 
framework of those early withdrawals. The framework was, of course, the 
beginning of the US winding down of the war -- the so-called process of 

The Australian Liberals, while insisting they still supported the war, 
withdrew some troops in lockstep with their US senior partners.

The military historian, Frank Frost, in the chapter "Conflict and 
Withdrawal" in Vietnam Remembered (Kevin Weldon and Associates, 1990), 
puts it this way: "The army felt that a complete Australian withdrawal 
was desirable with the departure of the task force, but the Government 
felt that there were political and military advantages in retaining a 
presence. On the December 9, 1971, the Government that an Australian 
Army Assistance Groups in Vietnam (AAAGV) would remain, composed mainly 
of AAAGV members, conducting training in Phuoc Tuy. A small group 
remained until after the elections in 1972, after which the incoming 
Whitlam Government withdrew the remaining 40 men."

In addition to this, the government maintained the whole conscription 
arrangements right to the bitter end, and they were still chasing 
conscientious objector conscripts such as Mike Matteson in Sydney up to 
the elections.

It was left to the incoming Labor Government to amnesty all the 
conscripts on the run, and promptly end conscription.

It's quite clear from Frank Frost's comments that the Liberal Government 
maintained some military presence even despite Vietnamisation, hoping to 
gain some chauvinistic advantage from a perceived residual sentiment in 
support of the war in some sections of society, which might be mobilised 
by rhetoric about supporting Australian troops. The similarity with the 
current demeanour and rhetoric of the Howard Government is striking.

The Howard Government is trying very hard to get some political 
advantage out of the relatively small Australian troop commitment in 
Iraq, using nationalist sentiment about not "cutting and running" and 
about supporting Australian troops.

Tom and others may think that at some time in the future elements of the 
Australian ruling class may feel compelled to adopt a different stance, 
but there's nothing in the political tradition of the Liberals and 
Nationals, and nothing in their current political demeanour to suggest 
that is likely in even the medium term.

The Liberal-Nationals and the Australian media, more or less as a whole, 
are settling in to slug it out with Labor leader Latham and the ALP on 
the question of “political responsibility” about Iraq. It's true, as 
Denis Berrell points out on the Green Left list, that working 
journalists Alan Ramsey and Margo Kingston are against the Iraq 
involvement, but they are minority voices even in the more liberal 
Fairfax press. In fact, they are among the few surviving publicly vocal 
liberal-left journalists in a media that has mostly swung over to the 
far right.

Alan Ramsey's useful article yesterday in the Sydney Morning Herald 
sticking up for Latham is offset by a very hard editorial line in the 
SMH supporting the Iraq war and Howard's stand on keeping the troops there.

It's worth pointing out the different standpoints of the conservative 
and Labor sides of politics on the wars of the 20th century.

The conservatives supported every war and every use of military 
conscription in an ultra-patriotic way, always to the bitter end.

Labor, on the other hand, played a contradictory, and sometimes very 
progressive, role on a number of wars.

The Laborites were split on the Boer War, with a number of Labor 
politicians and leaders opposing that war.

Labor, by and large, supported World War I, although a few radicals such 
as Frank Anstey, MHR, and Hugh Mahon, MHR, were critical of that war.

However, the whole labour movement opposed conscription in 1916, and 
Labor expelled the reactionary Prime Minister Billy Hughes and several 
state premiers who tried to support conscription. The Labor Party split, 
the reactionary prime minister and premiers and their supporter were 
expelled, and the labour movement played a big role in defeating 
conscription in the two referendums, in 1916 and 1917.

The defeat of conscription in the two referendums was a unique event in 
the capitalist world.

Labor by and large supported World War II, but when Curtin tried to 
introduce conscription for overseas service he was bitterly opposed by a 
minority in the Labor Cabinet, led by E. J. Ward and Arthur Calwell. 
Several Labor figures such as Maurice Blackburn, MHR, and former NSW 
Labor premier J.T. Lang were expelled from the Labor Party for opposing 

(I know a bit about this issue because my father, a one-armed survivor 
of Gallipoli, who had been a supporter of Lang on the NSW state 
executive of the Labor Party for a number of years, was expelled along 
with Lang for opposing conscription.)

Labor vigorously supported Indonesian independence against the Dutch 
colonialists. It supported the Korean War, but it vigorously opposed the 
Vietnam War, initially under the courageous leadership of Arthur 
Calwell, even in the early stages when the Vietnam War was popular.

Labor supported the first Gulf war, but it opposed the second.

Phillip Ferguson chimes in, claiming the New Zealand Labourites are more 
gung-ho militarists than the Tories in that country, based on a new book.

I'm not as familiar with New Zealand as Ferguson is, but his thesis even 
about New Zealand seems to be contradicted by the agreement between 
Latham and Helen Clark last week that both Australia and New Zealand 
will withdraw from Iraq by December if Labor is elected.

Applied to Australia, Ferguson's thesis is nonsensical, as demonstrated 
by my little potted history of Labor's stance on 20th century wars.

Of course, the political structures of different countries are not 
identical. Anyone trying to understand the persistent hegemony of the 
Labor-trade union continuum on the left of Australian society has two 

1. To deny that it exists (as Ferguson tends to do).

2. Or treat is as an imponderable, reactionary mystery that can be 
solved by a process of pure exposure and propaganda, as the Australian 
DSP tends to do.

The problem with that approach is that it doesn't take account of either 
the current grip of Laborism or its historical origins, part of which is 
in things like the defeat of conscription in World War I, the opposition 
to the Vietnam War, and the current opposition to the Iraq war.

When Mark Latham takes his risky punt, electorally and politically, on 
continuing to insist that he'll withdraw the troops from Iraq if 
elected, he's calculating that the Iraq war will become electorally 
unsupportable, but he's also clearly recognising the relatively antiwar 
tradition of the left side of society, on which Laborism is based, and 
he's carefully covering his left flank against the Greens.

As well, he's probably sincere, personally, in his opposition to the 
Iraq involvement, in the way that he outlines, just as Arthur Calwell 
was personally sincere in his opposition to the Vietnam War. Latham is 
clearly a conservative, reformist Laborite, but why is it necessary for 
Marxists to exclude the possibility that he's personally sincere in 
opposing the Iraq war?

Why is any of this worth arguing about? It's worth arguing about for 
these reasons:

1. The defeat of the imperialist invasion of Iraq is highly desirable 
from a socialist point of view.

2. It's also desirable for the small Marxist forces in Australia, which 
are weaker than they've been in the past 100 years, to try to get some 
audience in the broad labour movement.

Both these factors come together in the proposition that the left should 
campaign vigorously for the defeat of the Liberals, the election of a 
Latham Labor government with the obvious corollary that the Greens will 
have the balance of power in the Senate, etc, etc, as I've argued.

If Marxist proceed in this spirit, they may even help in getting a Labor 
government elected, with the Greens having the balance of power, and 
they may even broaden their audience.

Concentrating at this point, strategically, as the DSP tends to do, on 
the exposure of Latham and the Laborites as a primary current tactical 
objective is reactionary political lunacy from a Marxist point of view.

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